Crimes committed by very drunk people

Being half Irish, I’ve had a couple of drinks in my time. And I thought I’d look at crimes committed over the centuries in London by people who were very, very drunk. And what happened to them!

DRUNK CRIMES: Insulting the king

On the 23 August 1676, a Scottish sailor was found guilty at the Old Bailey of uttering “wicked and detestable words” about King Charles II. He also said he hoped Britain would be damned and destroyed. Unfortunately, his ravings were heard by what the court described as a “Gentleman of Quality” and therefore he was put on trial.

This was a time when insulting the monarch could have very serious consequences. The man had just heard that the king’s barge had sailed past on the river Thames and this triggered a flow of expletives. And it was noted that he was extraordinarily drunk.

However, by the time he was in court, he was sobbing, claiming he had nothing against the king and pleading for Christian mercy. Luckily the judge just fined him.

DRUNK CRIMES: Shoplifting

In the same year, 1676, there’s an account of “two legerdemain ladies of profound experience in the mysteries of shoplifting”. What a great way of describing a couple of thieves! One of them had already been whipped “at the cart” in public but that didn’t stop them stealing some expensive callicoe.

Once caught, their excuse to avoid another whipping was that they had been absolutely drunk on brandy and no idea what they were doing. Regrettably for them, the judge decided that was no grounds for avoiding a guilty sentence.

DRUNK CRIMES: Slagging off the Protestant religion

In 1678, Matthew Momford committed the terrible crime of getting drunk and slagging off the Protestant religion. In strongly anti-Catholic England, this was a very grave offence. At this time, Jesuit and Catholic priests were still being hanged, drawn and quartered in London as agents of the Pope and traitors.

So Matthew was very unwise to get half cut on booze and loudly declare he was a “Papist” (Catholic) and that all Protestants should be burned. Once arrested and sober, Matthew declared that he was a good Protestant again and that his words had just been drunk rubbish.

The judge said he felt Matthew had no religion and only a hefty fine of one hundred pounds – a huge sum at that time – would bring him back to God. And until he could pay the fine, he’d be imprisoned. Plus he would have to show good behaviour for ten years.

Teenagers hanged in London – our brutal past!

It’s appalling yet sadly true that in the past, teenagers and even children were hanged at the gallows for crimes like theft and arson. Murder didn’t have to be involved. There was a wide variety of crimes you could be judicially put to death for. And many teenagers were hanged as a consequence.

We don’t know the youngest person to be executed in Britain. And we probably never will as records could be patchy or lost. And names of very young criminals might not have been recorded. However, a certain John Dean was hanged in 1629 for an arson attack on two houses in Windsor. He was either eight or nine years old.

HANGED TEENAGERS – Martha Pillah

Martha Pillah – which might be a misspelling or cockney pronouncing of “Pillow” – was hanged at Tyburn aged 18 in the year 1717. According to the records of the Old Bailey (the London Central Criminal Court), she took six Guineas and 15 shillings from a woman called Elizabeth White. That would have been quite a sum in those days.

Martha was born in Brewers Yard in the parish of St Margaret, Westminster. That’s quite near the Houses of Parliament and full of shops and office blocks today. But up until the mid-19th century, the area was a massive slum lapping on to the steps of parliament. So not the greatest place to grow up.

Still, Martha had got herself apprenticed to a tailor and then left his service to make a living mending men’s clothes. But clearly that didn’t pay enough or she just wanted more money – faster. In the Old Bailey record, she is described as “lewd and lascivious” and ignorant of moral goodness.

That said, it’s also stated that she cried to God for mercy as she was put on the cart from Newgate prison and taken off to Tyburn to entertain the crowd at the end of a rope. This was the grim procession that ordinary Londoners had to make to their execution. First, leaving Newgate prison and then trundling down High Holborn and what is now Oxford Street to be executed at Tyburn – roughly where Marble Arch now stands.

HANGED TEENAGERS: John Lemon and Christopher Ward

Some other teenagers joined her on the same day – 20 May 1717. John Lemon aged 18 and Christopher Ward aged 17. They were both Eastenders from Whitechapel. Their crime was burglary. It’s a familiar commentary in these records that the court notes they knew nothing or little of “religion” or “Christianity”. The assumption being that if they did – they’d have led good lives.

Thomas Price, aged 17, was yet another teenager on the same day – in the same cart from Newgate – off to be hanged. Despite his youth, he’d already served four years at sea. Maybe not so surprising given he’d grown up on the Isle of Wight. But having been discharged from naval service, he went up to London to make his fortune.

Unfortunately what he actually ended up doing was stealing a load of silverware from a certain Dr Guy Mesmin. He tried to deny his involvement in the robbery but eventually caved in and confessed. Furthermore, to the delight of the court, he admitted his wickedness and prayed for divine forgiveness. He was told this would improve his chances of not going to hell – but he was still hanged.

And what a terrible day for teenagers was the 20 May 1717!

HANGED TEENAGERS: Josiah Cony

Because also in the cart with Thomas, Christopher, John and Martha was 18 year-old Josiah Cony. He had broken into the house of William Roy and stolen three “flaxen” sheets and some other goods. Josiah didn’t seem to have any trade. When asked how he made a living, Josiah said part of his time was spent “drawing drink at an Alehouse” and then helping his mother carry “greens” and flowers around the streets.

Well, his poor mother would have to do without his assistance in future. Josiah and the others were just a handful of the thousands of teenagers who undoubtedly swung at Tyburn over the centuries. Life was shorter. More brutal. And teenagers were held to be accountable for their crimes.

Sadly, so were children.

In the year that my house was built – 1829 – a 12-year-old was sentenced to death at the Old Bailey. He had been accused of theft and murder. As was quite common in those days, an advertisement was produced giving all the gory details. Plus a helpful illustration.

In case you’re wondering – surely there would have been some sympathy for a 12 year-old by the year 1829 – think again. Here’s a quote from the advertisement:

With horror we attempt to relate the progress of evil, generally prevailing among children, through the corrupt example of wicked parents: though we are constrained to confess that many a child through bad company, wickedly follow the dictates of their own will, and often bring the hoary heads of honest parents with sorrow to the grave. 

The Dreadful Life and Confession of a Boy aged 12 years

Thanks to the British Library for this dreadful gem!