Thursday 21 January 2010

Burglars, boats and guns

The 1700s were a period of great concern about property crime. Notoriously, the 'Bloody Code' of criminal law created hundreds of capital offences (some strangely specific, such as the damanging of a particular bridge). Despite this lavish threatening of the death penalty, the newspapers of the period are full of accounts of violent crimes: highwaymen and armed robbers run through their pages.

Many of these offences involved guns - after all, they were commonly owned by householders and criminals alike. However, this incident in May 1774 stands out both for the number of weapons involved and for the way in which their use brought a burglary close to farce:
Early on Friday morning four men armed, landed out of a boat at Deadman’s Wharf, Deptford, one was left to take care of the boat, another was set to watch in Grove-street, while the other two broke open a house in that street; they stript the lower part of it of the most valuable things, then attempted to go up stairs, but in forcing open the door to the stairs, a bell fixed to it rang, which alarmed the mistress of the house, and there being only a wainscot between that house and the next, she rapped against it, and the gentleman of that house called out to know if a fire was broke out; she replied, thieves; upon which he threw up the sash, and discharged a pistol at the fellow who stood at the door to watch, and, it is supposed wounded him, as he went off groaning; the report of the pistol brought the other two out of the house, who discharged each a pistol at the gentleman, but happily missed him. The gentlewoman of the house, which they had broke open, having a loaded gun in her chamber, seeing them fire at her neighbour, discharged the piece at them; but pointing too high, the shot went through the glass of a window of the opposite house, and was near wounding a young lady opening her shutters to see what was the matter. The thieves, however, made off with the goods they had got from the lower part of the house, went into the boat, and rowed away.

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