Monday, May 12, 2008

Take The Prisoner Down (Under)

Surfing around, as one does, I came by chance upon a fascinating repository of historical information : namely Old Bailey Online. The site contains the transcripts of the proceedings of the Central Criminal Courts for the period 1674 to 1913. Access is free and the massive database of information can be searched by keyword. So - as one does in such cases - I went in search of any Burnett's and found, amongst the hundreds of records highlighted, the story of one John Burnett of Stepney in London. In re-telling the story here I am not suggesting that John B was any relation of mine, nor that his story was in any way special. The story provides nothing more than an insight into the workings of the criminal justice system in the eighteenth century.

The first reference to John Burnett occurs in the Court records of December 1768 when he is up before the judges on a charge of petty larceny. He is charged with the theft of a linen handkerchief, valued at ten pence, the property of a certain John Phipps of Cheapside. According to the gentleman's statement :

"On the 24th of November, between eight and nine in the evening, I was coming from Cheapside. At the corner of St. Paul's Church-Yard , I felt something at my pocket, I put my hand down, and found the prisoner's hand in my pocket; I catched hold of his arm; he had not got the handkerchief quite out; he finding I had hold of him, let the handkerchief go".

On this occasion, John Burnett was lucky : as the handkerchief was not in his full possession at the time of his capture, he was acquitted.

Did he learn from this narrow escape? : did he heck. Six months later, on the 10th May 1769, he was back in court again, this time charged with burglary. No ten-penny hankie either : he was indicted for stealing a quantity of silver plate (namely, a silver tankard, value £9, a silver waiter, value £3, six silver table-spoons, value £3, a pair of silver tea-tongs, value 8/-, a silver milk-pot, a pair of silver salts, two silver salt-shovels, and five silver tops of cruet-stands). This time he wasn't caught red-handed, he was grassed up by his fence, a certain Moses Lyon. Having been approached by John B. to sell a quantity of silver of dubious provenance, Mr Lyon went to the police and a trap was set. Lyon agreed to meet Burnett at a nearby alehouse and bring the silver with him. When he came the police were waiting and took him into custody (alehouses have always been an important element in the downfall of members of the extended Burnett family). John came up with a somewhat convoluted defence : he was innocent and just accompanying a old schoolfriend :

"I met John Bagnall , a schoolfellow of mine, who asked where I was going; I said to my father in Leadenhall-street. He asked me to go with him to Mr. Lyon's. I did. He then took out some plate. Mr. Lyon desired him to come again. At night he went down to Mr. Lyon's with some plate in his pocket, and some in a silk handkerchief. The two officers came up and took hold of me. They wanted to take the plate away; but I said the plate shall not go without me. I said, Where that goes, I will go to clear my character".

You will note that when the police officers approached Bagnall and Burnett, the former ran for his life (and managed to escape) while the latter, in true Burnett fashion, attempted to clear his name. The Judge didn't believe a word of this, found John Burnett guilty and sentenced him to be transported to Australia for seven years.

In many ways John B was lucky. At the end of each court session there is a summary of the sentences delivered during the relevant session. The list for the 10th May 1769 is as follows:

Received Sentence of Death, Seven.
Mary Harris ,
Louisa Smith , James Best , William Sykes, John Abram otherwise Abraham, Judith Baldwin , and John Creamer .
Transportation for fourteen years, Two.
Winnifred Carryl , and John Baker .
Transportation for seven years, Thirty-One.
John Smith ,
Sarah Manton otherwise Stretton otherwise Smith, George Pool , Joseph Bluckfield , John Steward , James Catling, William Nicholl, Mary Harding , Michael Mills , Eleanor Smith , Philip Erovselle , Francis Bush , Moses Waters , Robert Mallows , Thomas Gray , James Warden , Peter Medley , Samuel Levi , John Butler , Eleanor Morgan , Matthew Dalloway , Stephen Hope , John Burnett , William Perry , Thomas Jones , John House , John Morris otherwise Hambleton, Andrew Burk , Robert Williams , Elizabeth Odell , and Sarah Rowden .
Branded, Two.
Daniel Collins , and Sarah Scurry .

I've never been over-fond of silver. Perhaps it's a genetic thing. Perhaps I now know the reason why.

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