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LIFE OF CRIME 1780 – 88

 

*

On the third anniversary of Nora’s trial, as if to celebrate the occasion, Mary Higgins and Tom Harrold conceived a child. Perhaps Tom’s twenty-fifth birthday had more to do with it.

Tom was a tailor and to all intents and purposes, a respectable man. Mary was, to all intents and purposes, his respectable wife; she bore his children, kept his house, eked out an existence in the face of unrelenting poverty and together, fed on love and dripping, they survived. The couple had been together nearly five years, living near Tom’s uncle David and his growing family in Finsbury.

Mary’s sisters and parents lived in town. Mary’s visits and disappearances were easily explained. When Mary was in town she embarked on a shoplifting spree, then returned home to her other life flushed but happy. Tom the tailor either knew – or didn’t. Either way, he wasn’t going to be able to stop her.

On September 10th 1783, with the help of the local midwife and great enthusiasm from her fellow trollops she gave birth. The father probably spent the night in celebration, kept from the baby for fear of squeezing the infant to death in his enthusiasm.

Harriet Anne Harrold was christened on 21st September 1783 at St. Luke Old Street, Finsbury to Thomas Harrold and Mary Anne. The poor mite only had six months of freedom before she was locked up in Newgate Prison.

*

On the 22nd March 1784, between four and five in the afternoon, Harriet and her mother were in Leadenhall Street at the premises of Mr. Burton Webster, linen draper. Ambrose Massey was in attendance. Mary dumped Harriet on the counter and began the game.

‘She asked to look at some neck handkerchiefs; accordingly I shewed her several different pieces [but] she objected to the price of them…’

This was ‘tumbling the muslins’, the constant flow of bolt after bolt of material on the counter as she ruminated, counted the money in her purse, held lengths of cloth to her person, chatted about colors, weave, the quality and feel. Confuse and conquer.

Just then, quite by accident, Hannah Owen and her sister stumbled into Mary’s destiny.

‘Me and my sister went in to buy a piece of muslin,’ Miss Owen said, ‘the prisoner was then in the shop looking at neck handkerchiefs, she said they were too dear for her and did not buy…’

Mary couldn’t believe her luck. Hannah and her sis were the perfect diversion. She stood back while they engaged the clerk in small talk and asked to look at some British muslin. When Ambrose turned round to get the goods, Mary grabbed what she could and bolted. Her exit was controlled, courteous and brilliantly timed. By the time Ambrose turned back round again she was gone. 

‘Immediately the boy put the muslin down, he missed a piece of handkerchiefs.’ 

Ambrose Massey knew precisely what had happened; this was a regular occurrence. He was suddenly sick of it all, the lies, the charm and the persuasion, sick of being endlessly deceived – these bitches were relentless.

‘He jumped over the counter and went after the woman and brought her back.’ Hannah said enthusiastically, ‘and then he sent for a constable.’

Mary fell to her knees and began sobbing.

‘She was begging for God’s sake to forgive her; she never did [anything like] this before…’ 

She was crying, the child was crying; it was a truly piteous sight but nobody cared, least of all the Owen sisters.

‘We said we had nothing at all to do with it,’ sniffed Hannah, ‘we didn’t belong to the shop. It is a sad thing that people must be robbed of their property by such vile wretches…’ 

Mary was a fine actress but this was a tough crowd. Before the day was out she was in the remand cells. 

1784

 

The diva trod the boards at the Old Bailey on 21st April 1784.

‘I went into the shop and set my child down on the counter by the handkerchiefs,’ she said in court, ‘I looked at some but they were too dear – I being a poor woman…’

She paused theatrically, took a deep breath and continued with her prepared speech.‘

I went out and got some distance from the shop and the boy came after me, I went back with him. I didn’t know I had anything belonging to them about me, I took and shook my child – and there they were between my cloak and my child’s coats.’ 

If the court would believe that they would believe anything. When the judge asked if she had any character witnesses she sobbed;‘I have not a friend in the world; my husband is a tailor, he has gone into the country to look for work.’

Poor tragic, abandoned Mary.About the only true thing she’d said was that her husband was a tailor – but the performance must have been convincing – her sentence, compared to others of the time, was light. She was found part guilty of theft under five shillings. Just as well; by law there was a mandatory sentence of death for shoplifting goods worth five shillings or more; by reducing the value of the goods stolen juries could avoid this statutory penalty.

Mary copped a private whipping and was confined to hard labor for six months in the House of Correction.

 

 

The House of Correction, often known as a Bridewell, was a kind of ‘prison lite’, a place where petty criminals – who were not to be exposed to the hardened general prison population – might be placed ‘to the intent that youth may be brought up to labour, and not grow into rogues, and that idle rogues may not have any excuse for saying that they cannot get any service or work.’  Cowie describes Bridewell as a place where ’all strumpets, nightwalkers, pick-pockets, vagrant and idle persons, that are taken up for their ill lives… are forced to beat hemp in public view, with due correction of whipping, according to their offense, for such a time as the president and court shall see cause …’

Clearly the judge and jury thought there was some hope for Mary Higgins. They were wrong. Six months should have been ample time for her to reflect on her failings and change her wicked ways but, alas, Mary was not of a reflective temperament. Her life existed entirely on the surface, she stayed relentlessly facile, upbeat and cruel without a skerrick of thought as to the consequences of her actions, never once gave a moment’s thought to the bigger picture, to a view of the world not her own. She wasn’t one of those sobbing amateurs, the petty thieves suddenly thrown in the deep end with no idea how to behave; she knew all about the wages of sin and if a few months in the nick were necessary every now and then as penance she was happy to oblige. It was too much fun sinning to stop.

Mary was well looked after in jail; she had the contacts and the rhino to soften most of the sharp edges inside and maintained both her dignity and pride with surprising ease. Rhino was everything. She had it stashed away all over the place for a rainy day. Here, in prison, it poured every day.

The House of Correction wasn’t a chore for Mary – quite the reverse. There are those that thrive in prison, those that learn how to play the game, to lie and cheat with panache and style, who find the cracks in the machine. She smoothed her way with copper coins, used gold to secure her bed, ate well, drank too much and laughed like fury when things were going her way. Life in the slammer was no different to life on the streets – same people, same rules, same drama.

Mary Higgins came out of Bridewell six months to the day after she went in. I reckon they slammed the door on her with a sigh of relief. 

 

The records of the old Bailey show no trace of our Miss Higgins between October 1784 and December 1788. Perhaps the demands of a child drew her away from the criminal embrace; perhaps motherhood became a fair substitute for the lure of the streets. Only the mother of a toddler can begin to know just what slowed Mary down, if slowed down she was – but not for long.

If our Miss Higgins is the ‘wife’ of Tom Herrald she’s had another baby.

James Herrald, her long suffering tailor, was evidently still around and kicking; in June 1788 he played his minor part in the conception of a daughter and by August, when the great event was confirmed, allowed himself the luxury of getting excited. Mary was more alarmed than excited. Ever the pragmatist, she knew immediately they needed more money. Without overly alerting her husband, she returned to her old ways. The diva was back on the boards.

Maybe she was out of practice, maybe it was just bad timing but, on the late afternoon of Friday 19th December 1788, luck finally ran out.

*

1788

She chose Cranbourn Passage, just off Leicester Square, because she knew the back streets around it. Timing was everything in her game and that crucial sixty seconds after the theft meant the difference between success and failure.

Mary hovered outside for a while, looking in the window, casting her eye around for watchmen or crowds, checking the streets for anything untoward that might impede her swift exit. She felt safe. The street was not as busy as she would have liked, but just a few yards down there was a small alley that led to Haymarket where she could disappear into the crowds in an instant.

The establishment of Barlow and Hops: Linen and Fine Materials was the object of her attention. She wandered in, appearing to check out the stock, eyes actually scanning the room for the most likely item to steal, computing the odds, checking for doors and other customers. She was in the Zone.

There was no one else in the back shop save the young lad at the counter. John Lloyd was anxious to please.  Somehow the apprentice had made it through to the age of nineteen with some semblance of a conscience; the likes of Mary Higgins were quite foreign to him.He was wrapping the purchase and turned away briefly to find scissors. That’s when she struck.

In an instant a bolt of blue silk lute-string was snatched from the counter and, in one quick and practised movement, deposited under her cloak. It was a brilliant manoeuvre; Mary would simply take hold of the bolt in one hand, lift her cloak up with her elbow, take one step back and the bolt was off the counter and hanging by her side. One step forward back to the counter while she was sliding the bolt under her cloak into the special stealing pocket and it was all over. She could maintain a conversation while she did this, an expression of the sweetest innocence on her face and even to other customers at close range, not be detected. What a pro.

Mary waddled out of the shop.*John was actually hurt when he discovered the theft; hurt, embarrassed and then angry, in rapid succession. He’d lose his job, he knew it – he’d have to face Mr. Barlow and be back on the streets. John had a number of very good reasons to react fast and head out into Cranbourne Passage in search of the thief.

Just as Mary was about to turn down the alleyway to Haymarket her way was blocked. A horse and cart slowly rumbled out of the alley into the street. Mary had nowhere to go. This is when John saw her. He shouted as he came closer. They were only three or four yards away from each other and she was cornered, trapped between a horse and a wall. She turned to face the noise with a calm smile on her face. Bluff and bravado was about all she had going for her now. Her pathetic explanation for the thirty seven yards of blue silk hanging under her cloak didn’t work at all. While Mary was an expert at her trade she was definitely not an expert at getting out of trouble.

‘I just picked it up in the front of the shop as I was going out,’ she said feebly, ‘I had every intention of taking it back..’

John’s eyes rolled. He dragged her back into the shop and called for a watchman. His shout was picked up and carried through the streets. Crime prevention was a community thing in those days, enthusiastic citizens formed their own citizen watch and there was much excitement in joining the rumpus whenever a thief was caught; all part of the great street drama of mid-eighteenth century London. The watchman came running before long. Mary’s face went white and her eyes filled with tears. All was in vain.‘

This is a serious crime,’ the watchman said, ‘you must come with me to the Compter.’

She clawed at the lad’s hand, imploring him not to press charges but he, in a fit of righteous hurt and anger, would have none of it. She tried to make a run for it but the passers-by stopped her with great hooroo. Events were in train.

Mummy didn’t make it home for Christmas that year – she was stuck in a remand cell in Newgate. Little James probably cried.

*

Trials lasted an average of eight minutes and between the two courts the turnover was surprisingly brisk. On the 14th of January 1789, Mary’s life, already in a state of flux, changed irrevocably – the steel doors slammed shut. She was seven months pregnant. Her name was called.

‘Mary Higgins, you are indicted of feloniously stealing, on the 19th of December last, thirty seven yards of blue lute-string, to the value of seven pounds, the goods of John Barlow and John Hops, privately, in their shop.’

John Lloyd blushed when he testified and looked straight at her, strangled innocence on his face. He was completely truthful and evidently trustworthy, exactly the kind of lad that Justice Barlow would like to have as a son. She could see the distant look of approval on the magistrate’s face. Nothing was going to make this come out right. She was already resigned to that when it came her turn to speak. A blank look settled on the faces of the court – it was all just a matter of time.

The jury had already made up their mind. The foreman barely had to enquire. A nod, a wink along the line and the judge was notified by a semaphore series of bows.We know the result – inevitable.‘To be transported for seven years.’

Money was everything right then, and at least she had that. More than enough to get her the upgrade she so sorely needed. Mary was off to stay in the Master’s Side of Newgate with the hoi polloi; her fellow guests were the monied, the titled and the criminally rich. She was so heavily pregnant and confused by this point she scarcely noticed.

Numbly, dumbly she followed instructions, went through tunnels and locked doors to be inspected and scrubbed and numbered. She did all this uncomplaining, acutely conscious of the kicking child in her belly and that single word; transportation. She was in shock.

In the Master’s Side, amongst others, were Alice Haynes, Nelly Kerwin, Elizabeth Barnsley and Ann Wheeler; all high class shoplifters, all with more than enough rhino stashed away to get into the Newgate Hilton. Mary must have been in that pantheon too; the scum de la scum of shoplifters, big, bold and beholden to nobody. It was a shame she didn’t have much time to get to know them.

Her cell-mates were surprisingly kind, even concerned, as her pregnancy drew to its conclusion and just six weeks later, in early March, a baby girl was delivered in the Infirmary. She was called Ann.

If ever there was an occasion for mixed feelings, this was it. There, in front of her, was the tiny miracle that was her daughter; about as positive a sign for the future as anybody might need. Behind her, just out of reach, was her husband, her young son James, her family and her whole life in London, about to be ripped away – forever.

Word was already out that a ship was in the river about to be loaded with women for the new colony.

*

There were mixed feelings in the Master’s Side when Mary arrived back with a babe in her arms. Crying children could try anybody’s patience, let alone in prison, particularly at this moment in time but the child behaved like clockwork and nuzzled into her mother’s breast apparently content with her brief life in captivity. The infant had no time to settle. With no warning, just an hour to pack and go, they were pushed out of the cells in the very early morning of the 12th March 1789. This was the last time their feet would touch British soil.

Blackfriar’s Bridge was their immediate destination but none of them knew where that might lead. The lighters were at the quay.

*

© NIGEL TRIFFITT 2010

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