Saturday 6 September 2008

Deptford and the Old Bailey (2)

Some Old Bailey cases were reworked into criminal biographies, called Ordinary’s Accounts. They give a fuller sense of the life and lifestyle of defendants, generally going from the criminal’s birth to her or his death on the gallows. Their purpose was not only entertainment but also the moral edification of the reader, as you can sense from the following extracts.

Gang crime is nothing new, as the 1745 story of William Brister, from a poor but honest Deptford family, demonstrates:

Dillsey, which was the Nick-Name his Gang assign'd him, was Twenty-four Years of Age, born in Deptford of honest poor Parents, who put him to School to Read, Write, and Cast Accompts, and had him carefully instructed in Religious Principles. When he was of Age, he was put Apprentice to a Waterman , and served his Time out honestly. After which he lived handsomely by his Business, but having Occasion to come often to Town, he at length contracted an Acquaintance with some notorious Street-Robbers and Women of the Town, who soon seduced him into the like wicked Way which they were accustomed to.
HE confessed the two Robberies he was indicted for, and owned besides that he had committed many more Offences of the like Nature.
HE was a very vicious young Man, much addicted to Drinking, and other Debaucheries, negligent of all Religion, so that he never of late went to Church, and had almost quite forgot what little good Education his Parents had bestowed upon him. He was very poor and naked, and a miserable Object to look upon. He behaved quietly, came constantly to Chapel, and seemed more serious than many in those Circumstances. He was also one of the Black-Boy-Alley Crew, and therefore no Objection can be made against the Justice of his Sentence. He was very attentive to the Word of God and Prayers, and it is to be hoped died penitent of all his Sins.

Contrast Brister’s thoughtful parents with the sad beginnings of William Tidd, also born in Deptford:

His Parents gave him no Education, and dying when he was but now past Infancy, he never had the Advantage of any good Admonition, and seemed to be quite a Stranger to every Thing that he ought to have been acquainted with. The Seeds of Wickedness grew up in him very early, and he was always looked upon as an unlucky sad Fellow, always given to Profaneness and Debauchery. He was once bound Apprentice to a Barber in the Borough of Southwark, where he lived not long, but he played his thievish Tricks, and because he met with proper Discipline and Correction, his Stomach was too big to put up with it, and he run away.

Unsurprisingly, as the story went he soon fell into bad company, and was charged with robbery

upon which Indictment he was capitally convicted, and received Sentence of Death: During which Time it pleased God to afflict him sorely with Sickness, insomuch that he was covered over with the Itch and Vermin, and continued so to be when he was discharged from his Confinement, having received a free Pardon from the Crown.

However, the itching, verminous Tidd returned to his old ways until once more sentenced to death in 1750:

His Life has since been one continued Scene of Robbery and Burglary, and the Fact he suffers for he did not deny, tho' he would particularly own none other, being resolved to die as he had lived, a harden'd, wicked Wretch, whom no Warnings or Admonitions could prevail with. … No Sense of Mercy formerly received had any Weight with him; his Ignorance and Insensibility seem'd to be invincible, and he continued a most hardened Person, till at the Place of Execution, and then he began to weep, and to shew some Marks of a Sense of his unhappy Condition.

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