Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - The Business of Pleasure, by Edmund Yates, 1879 - Chapter 21 - Case for the Prosecution

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I WAS staying out of town by the sea, where I always do my own marketing and, as the butterman made a little funnel of paper in which to enclose my two new-laid eggs, I saw a roll of yellow manuscript in faded ink lying in the drawer. "What's that?" I asked. " Waste," he replied. " May I look at it?" "Welcome;" and he brought it out. A large roll of extra-size law-paper, marked outside "Old Bailey, July Session, 1782 ; Middlesex. The King against George Weston and Joseph Weston, for felony. Brief for the prosecutor."
    "Where did you get this?" I asked. "Come with the rest," he said; "pounds of it downstairs; nigh enough to fill my back cellar!" It Was very tempting. I had no books save the half-dozen I had brought with me, and which I knew by heart; the evenings were dull and showery; I was getting horribly bored for want of something to read. " Will you sell me this roll of paper?" said I. "No ; I'll gie 'em to ye," was his spirited response.
    I carried the roll of paper home, and saw my landlady glance at it with undisguised horror as she observed it under my arm. Then, after I had dined, and the evening, as usual, had turned out showery, and nobody was left on the esplanade save the preventive man, wrapped in his oilskin coat, wearing [-227-] his sou'-wester hat, and always looking through his telescope for something which never arrived - I lighted my reading-candles, feathery with the corpses of self-immolated moths, and proceeded to look over my newly-found treasure. Very old, very yellow, very flyblown. Here is the heading of the first side: "Old Bailey. July Session, 1782. For Felony. Brief for the prosecution " (each item underscored), in the left-hand corner. In the right-hand, and kept together by a pen-and-ink coupling figure, "The King - (so grand that they could not put anybody else in the same line, and are obliged to fill it up with a long stroke) "against George Weston, o'rwise Samuel Watson, and Joseph Weston, o'rwise Joseph Williams Weston, o'rwise William Johnson." Then follow six-and-twenty counts of indictment, and then comes the "case," whence I cull the facts of the story I am about to tell.
    Between two and three o'clock on the morning of Monday, the 29th of January, 1781, the mail-cart bringing what was called the Bristol mail, with which it had been laden at Maidenhead, and which it should eventually have deposited at the London General Post-office, then in Lombard-street, was jogging easily along towards Cranford Bridge, between the eleventh and twelfth milestone, when the post-boy, a sleepy-headed and sickly young fellow (he died very shortly after the robbery), was wakened by the sudden stopping of his horses. Opening his eyes, he found himself confronted by a single highwayman, who presented a pistol at his head, and bade him get down from the cart. Half asleep, and considerably more than half terrified, the boy obeyed, slipped down, and glared vacantly about him. The robber, seeing some indecision in his young friend's face, kindly recalled him to himself by touching his forehead with the cold barrel of the pistol, then ordered him to return back towards Cranford Bridge, and not to look round if he valued his life. Such a store did the poor [-228-] boy place upon this commodity, which even then was daily slipping from him, that he implicitly obeyed the robber's directions, and never turned his head until he reached the post-office at Hounslow, where he made up for lost time by giving a lusty alarm.
    Hounslow Heath being at that time a very favourite spot for highway robberies, it was by no means uncommon for the denizens of Hounslow town to be roused out of their beds with stories of attack. On this occasion, finding that the robbers had had the impudence to lay their sacrilegious hands on his Majesty's mail, the Hounslowians turned out with a will, and were speedily scouring the country in different directions. Those who went towards the place where the boy had been stopped hit upon the right scent. They tracked the wheels of the cart on the road leading from the great high road to Heston, and thence to the Uxbridge road, a short distance along that road towards London, and then along a branch-road to the left leading to Ealing Common, about a mile from which, in a field at a distance of eight or ten miles from where the boy was robbed, lay the mail-cart, thrown on its side and gutted of its contents. The bags from Bath and Bristol for London had been rifled, many of the letters had been broken open, the contents taken away, and the outside covers were blowing about the field. About twenty-eight letter-bags had been carried off bodily; some distance down the field was found the Reading letter-bag, rifled of its contents. Expresses were at once sent off to head-quarters; consternation in the City was very great; and advertisements, giving an account of the robbery and offering a reward, were immediately printed, and distributed throughout the kingdom.
    About nine o'clock on Tuesday morning, the 30th of January (before any account of the robbery could have arrived at Nottingham), a post-chaise rattled into the yard [-229-] of the Black Moor's Head in that town, and a gentleman in a naval uniform alighted and requested to be shown to a room. In this room he had scarcely settled himself, before he rang the bell, and despatched the waiter to the bank of Messrs. Smith to obtain cash for several Bristol bills which he handed to him. Messrs. Smith declining these bills without some further statement, the gentleman in the naval uniform started forth himself, and called at the counting-house of Messrs. Wright, old-established bankers in Nottingham, where he requested cash for a bank post-bill, No. 11,062, dated 10th of January, 1781, payable to Matthew Humphrys, Esq., and duly endorsed by Matthew Humphrys, but by no one else. Mr. Wright, the senior partner, peered over his gold spectacles at the gentleman in the naval uniform, and wished to know if he were Mr. Humphrys? As the naval gentleman replied in the negative, Mr. Wright requested him to endorse the bill, which the naval gentleman did, writing "James Jackson" in a rather feeble and illiterate scrawl, but receiving cash for his bill. Immediately on his return to the hotel, the naval gentleman ordered a post-chaise and left Nottingham on an agreeable trip to Mansfield, Chesterfield, Sheffield, Leeds, Wakefield, Tadcastor, York, Northallerton, Darlington, Durham, Newcastle, and Carlisle; at each and every one of which places - such were his needs - the naval gentleman had to go to the bankers, and obtain cash for bills which he presented. Leaving Carlisle, he departed by the direct road for London, and was not heard of for some days.
    But so soon as the government advertisement arrived in Nottingham, the ingenious Mr. Wright was suddenly struck with an idea, and concluded (by a remarkable exercise of his intellectual forces) that the naval gentleman and the robber of the mail-cart were one and the same person. So he caused handbills descriptive of the naval gentleman's appearance to be printed and circulated, and he sent out [-230-] several persons in pursuit of the purloiner of his hundred pounds. Amongst other places, a number of handbills were sent to Newark by stage-coach on Thursday, the 1st of February, addressed to Mr. Clarke, the postmaster, who also kept the Saracen's Head Inn. Unfortunately this parcel was not opened until about noon on Friday, the 2nd of February; but the moment Mr. Clarke read one of the notices, he recollected that a gentleman in naval uniform had, about four hours before, arrived from Tuxford at his house in a chaise and four, had got change from him for a bank-note of 25, and had immediately started in another chaise and four for Grantham.
    Now was a chance to catch the naval gentleman before he reached London, and an instant pursuit was commenced; but the devil stood his friend so far, for he reached town about three hours before his pursuers. His last change was at Enfield Highway, whence a chaise and four carried him to town, and set him down in Bishopsgate Street between ten and eleven on Friday night. The postboys saw him get into a hackney-coach, taking his pistols and portmanteau with him; but they could not tell the number of the coach, nor where he directed the coachman to drive.
    Having thus traced the highwayman to London, of course no one could then dream of taking any further steps towards his apprehension without consulting "the public office, Bow Street," in the matter; and at the public office, Bow Street, the affair was placed in the hands of one Mr. John Clark, who enjoyed great reputation as a clever "runner." Mr. John Clark's first act was to issue a reward for the appearance of the hackney-coachman; an act which was so effectual that, on Monday morning, there presented himself at Bow Street an individual named James Perry, who said that he was the coachman in question, and deposed that the person whom he had conveyed in his coach the Friday night preceding was one George Weston, [-231-]    whom he well knew, having been a fellow-lodger of his at the sign of the Coventry Arms in Potter's Fields, Tooley Street, about four months ago. He also said that Weston ordered him to drive to the first court on the left hand in Newgate Street, where he set him down; Weston walking through the court with his portmanteau and pistols under his arm. Further information than this James Perry could not give. On Tuesday, the 6th of February, a coat and waistcoat, similar to those worn by the naval gentleman implicated in these transactions, were found in "Pimlico river, near Chelsea Waterworks," by one John Sharp; and finally, Mr. Clark, of the public office, Bow Street, in despair at his want of success, advertised George Weston by name. But, although a large number of notes and bills were "put off" or passed between that time and the month of November, not the least trace could be had of him. Mr. Clark, of the public office, Bow Street, owned himself done at last; and so, in the pleasant round of highway robberies, foot-paderies, burglaries, and murders, the affair was almost forgotten.
    In the middle of the month of October, a gentleman, dressed (of course) in the height of the mode, entered the shop of Messrs. Elliott and Davis, upholsterers, in New Bond Street, accompanied by an intimate friend, whom he addressed as Mr. Samuel Watson. The gentleman's own name was William Johnson; he had, as he informed the upholsterers, recently taken a house and some land near Winchelsea, and he wished them to undertake the furnishing of his house. The upholsterers, like cautious tradesmen, requested "a reference;" which Mr. Johnson at once gave them in Mr. Hanson, a tradesman residing also in New Bond Street. Mr. Hanson, on being applied to, said that Mr. Johnson had bought goods of him to the amount of 70, and had paid ready money. Messrs. Elliott and Davis were perfectly satisfied, and professed their readiness [-232-] to execute Mr. Johnson's orders. Mr. Johnson's orders to the upholsterers were to "let him have everything suitable for a man of 500 a year, an amount which he possessed in estates in Yorkshire, independent of the allowance made to him by his father, who had been an eminent attorney in Birmingham, but had retired upon a fortune of 2,000 a year." Elliott and Davis took Mr. Johnson at his word, and completed the order in style; then, about the middle of January the junior partner started for Winchelsea, and took the bill with him. Like a prudent man he put up at the inn, and made inquiries about his debtor. Nothing could be more satisfactory. Mr. Johnson lived with the best people of the county; Mr. Johnson went everywhere, and was a most affable, liberal, pleasant gentleman. So when Mr. Davis saw Mr. Johnson, and that affable gentleman begged him, as a personal favour, to defer the presentation of his little account until March, he at once concurred, and returned to London, to give Elliott a glowing account of his reception, and to inspire him with a certain amount of jealousy that he - Elliott - had not taken the account himself. March came, but Johnson's money came not: instead thereof a letter from Johnson, stating that his rents would be due on the 25th of that month, that he did not like to hurry his tenants, but that he would be in town the first or second week in April, and discharge the bill. Reading this epistle, Elliott looked stern, and was secretly glad he had not been to Winchelsea; while Davis, glancing over it, was secretly sorry he had said so much.
    While the partners were in this state, in the second week of April, no money having in the meantime been forthcoming, enter to them a neighbour, Mr. Timothy Lucas, jeweller, who gives them good-day, and then wants to know their opinion of one Mr. Johnson, of Winchelsea. "Why?" asked the terrified upholsterers. Simply because he had given their firm as reference to the jeweller, who [-233-] had already sold him, on credit, goods to the amount of 130, and had just executed an order for 800 worth of jewellery, which was then packed and ready to be sent to Winchelsea. Now consternation reigned in New Bond Street. Johnson's debts to Elliott and Davis were above 370; to Lucas above 130. Immediate steps must be adopted; so writs were at once taken out, and the London tradesmen, accompanied by a sheriff's officer, set out to Winchelsea to meet their defrauder.
    Early on Monday morning, the 15th of April, as they were passing through Rye, on their way, they observed Mr. Johnson and his intimate friend Mr. Samuel Watson coming towards them on horseback, escorting a chariot, within which were two ladies, and behind which was a groom on horseback. Davis, the trusting, conscious of having temporarily nourished a snake in his upholstering bosom, pointed out Johnson to the sheriff's officer, who immediately rode up to arrest him, and was as immediately knocked down by Johnson with the butt-end of his riding-whip. The tradesmen rushed to their officer's assistance, but Johnson and Watson beat them off; and Watson, drawing a pistol, swore he would blow their brains out. This so checked the upholstering ardour, that Johnson and Watson managed to escape, returned in great haste to Winchelsea, where they packed their plate and valuables, and made off at full speed across country, leaving directions for the ladies to follow them to London in the chariot.
    Clearly the London tradesmen were nonplussed; clearly the thing for them to do was, to consult with the mayor and principal tradesmen of the town; clearly the place for the consultation was the coffee-room of the Nag's Head. In a corner of this coffee-room lay a ne'er-do-weel, a pothouse loiterer, a tap-room frequenter, a man with the reputation of having once had brains which he had muddled [-234-] away with incessant brandy-and-water. "Jack" he was called; and if he had one peculiarity besides brandy-and-water, which was scarcely a peculiarity in Rye, it was his intense interest in all criminal matters. So, the tradesmen talked, and Jack listened, until they had given a description of the person of Mr. William Johnson, when Jack went away to the den which he called home, and, returning, requested to hear Mr. Johnson's appearance again described. Mr. Davis, the junior partner, looking upon Jack as a harmless lunatic, complied with the request. Jack gave a yell of delight, and, producing from under his ragged coat the hand-bill issued from the public office, Bow Street, speedily showed that Mr. Johnson, of Winchelsea, and George Weston, the mail-robber, were one and the same person.
    No sooner proved than action taken. Off goes an express to the post-office. Mr. John Clark is torn from the bosom of his family and summoned to the public office, whence he despatches trusty satellites, with the result that Mr. Johnson, with his intimate friend Mr. Watson, are traced from various places to an hotel in Noel Street, near Wardour Street, Soho, where they slept on Tuesday night. Early on Wednesday morning, indefatigable Mr. John Clark, duly apprised, is at the door of the Noel Street hotel, relates to the landlord his errand, and requests the landlord's assistance; which the landlord refuses. Clark sends a bystander off to Bow Street for assistance, and the landlord proceeds to caution his guests, who immediately take alarm, and come slouching downstairs with their hands in their pockets. Clark, who is standing at the door, does not like their attitude, thinks it safest to let them pass, but as soon as they are fairly in the street, gives the alarm, "Stop thief! Stop mail robbers !" Out rushes a crowd in hot pursuit-pursuit which is temporarily checked by Messrs. Johnson and Watson each producing a brace of pistols, and [-235-] firing three shots at their followers ; but at last they are both captured.
    So far my yellow-leaved, fly-blown, faded brief-sheets, which tell me, moreover, that George Weston and Joseph Weston are the Johnson and Watson of the Winchelsea drama; that they will be proved to be brothers; that George Weston will be proved to be the highwayman, and Joseph the receiver; and that there is a perfect cloud of witnesses ready to prove every indictment. I suppose they did prove it ; for, turning back to the first outside folio, I find, in a different handwriting and a later ink, " Guilty" - to be hanged at Tyburn - May 3; and later still I see an ink-cross, which, from official experience, I know to be a record that the last memorandum had been carried out, and that the papers might be put by.