Murder in mediaeval London

The world is a dangerous place these days. Reading some of the papers you might think that we’re descending into such a violent society that it’s not safe to go out of your front door.

But a trawl back through the history of violent crime in the East End suggests otherwise. There’s crime today, certainly, but it was ever thus – and if things aren’t getting much better, maybe they aren’t that much worse either. Of course, the weapons of choice may have changed a little.

Back in 1384 John Flynt was practising archery in Whitechapel when he was shot accidentally. There aren’t many bowmen in Whitechapel these days, nor many farmers. But in 1389 John Benge, Peter Willard of Ghent and William, all of them Flemings from the Low Countries, in the employ of Adam de St Ivon were sowing peas and vetches when a fight broke out. Hauled before the courts, they were charged with fighting in the field with their farming tools.

In fact the fields around Stepney could be dangerous and lawless places, alive with footpads and highwaymen. Garcia Gonsalys, a Spanish sailor was attacked and nearly killed in fields at Ratcliff by a thief, who was caught and imprisoned. This was quite a mild sentence by the standards of the time, a couple of hundred years later, the perpetrator would probably have been hanged. But poor Gonsalys got a rough deal too. Servants of the Bishop of London assumed he was the guilty party, and he was put in the stocks for four weeks until his case was heard.

Some were victim of their own charity. Around 1428, a devout widow of St Mary Matfellon, Whitechapel, Stepney had ‘for a long time cherished and brought up of alms a certain Frenchman, or Breton born’. The Breton repaid the widows charity by murdering her as she slept. ‘And after fled with such jewels and other stuff of her as he might carry’. Escaping over London Bridge he was soon captured, and the constables hauled him back into Stepney. Justice was messy – then brutal. Along the route, women threw ‘night soil’ from their windows onto his head and that of the constables. The constables took matters into their own hands and stabbed him to death in the street.

A church should be a place of safety and sanctuary. But in 1530 a woman praying at the high altar of Priory of the Holy Trinity, was stabbed to death. Her assailant was a monk, Brother Martin, who then killed himself.

And if you thought you were safe in the warmth and comfort of a friendly East End inn, think again. Michael van Berghen and his wife Catherine kept a public house in East Smithfield with their servant Dromelius. On 11 July 1700 they murdered a country gentleman named Oliver Morris. The three were sentenced to be hanged near the Hartshorn Brewhouse in East Smithfield. While Catherine maintained a little dignity in death, the men's bodies were hung in chains between Bow and Mile End.

But sentencing could be appallingly inequable. On 11 January 1600 Henry Adlington was ‘hanged without the bars of Aldgate for killing a man there, and afterwards was hanged in chains on the Miles End’, the rotting corpse being a warning to other miscreants. Yet on 12 August 1601 Reynold Holdaway, a Whitechapel smith, was bound over for £20. The crime? Holdaway had beaten his wife to death. By the 18th century it seemed East End courts were taking a stricter view of the killing of a wife. In 1735 Charles Connor, a sawyer from Shoreditch was hung for murdering his wife.

There were numerous horrible cases of infanticide, often by bullying employers who treated their apprentices as possessions, to be disposed of at will. Edmund Gilbert was a Bethnal Green master weaver who took charity children as apprentices. He beat one of them to death and was hung in 1745. Captain David Ferguson, meanwhile, master of the Betsey, was tried for murdering his cabin boy whilst on the way to Virginia, and found guilty. He was hung on 4 January 1771 at Wapping. The site of a bloated corpse hanging in chains at Wapping was always a popular draw of course, and the area was packed with spectators including barges and ships on the river. In 1809 a Captain Sutherland, whilst drunk, killed his young black servant. He too was dispatched at Execution Dock and the event attracted a great crowd along the route, on the shore, and on boats and barges on the river.

Punishment could sometimes be a long time coming, even for legalized murder. John Okey was one of the regicides, the men who sentenced Charles I to death. After the restoration of the monarchy in 1660, Okey was extradited from Holland along with Miles Corbet, friend and lawyer to Cromwell and John Barkeshead, former constable of the Tower of London and imprisoned in the Tower. From there they were taken to Tyburn and hung drawn and quartered.

For more detail on the grisly history of the East End in general and Stepney in particular, go to the excellent http://website.lineone.net/~fight/Stepney/index.html.