Troublesome Carpenters at The Old Bailey


Given a choice between reading estate inventories or criminal records I go for the criminals. The carpenter above was found guilty in August of 1678 and his punishment was having ‘M’ branded on his thumb. If convicted of murder he would have been hanged. Life was not easy for the working class in the 17th century and punishment was harsh.

The Tyburn Tree...built by Carpenters.

The Tyburn Tree…built by Carpenters.

Before being taken to Tyburn the condemned spoke with an Ordinary (a member of the clergy) and a statement was entered into the official records.  Themes of Idleness, Excessive Drink, Swearing and Lude Company were often written into this final statement. Theft of even very small amounts could lead to execution.

May 1690 Execution at Tyburn:  Andrew Browne condemned for Felony and Burglary, he is Aged 30 years, was born in Shrop shire, and bred a Carpenter. He followed that Employment Three Years in Red-Lyon-Fields. But leaving his Trade, and taking to an Idle Life, he fell into Evil Company, and thereby Committed the foresaid Crime. He said, that he had been guilty of swearing and excessive Drinking, of which, he now Repents.

They do not labour like the ant, Their work is play and play their want.

Apprentices seldom had an easy life and there are many accounts of runaways and other trouble.

October 1718 Execution at Tyburn:  Henry Abbott, condemned for Burglary in breaking the House of Mr. Jonathan Jones, and stealing then 5 Silver-Spoons, a Silver-Cup and other Plate and Goods. He said he was 19 Years of Age…That he was bound Appentice to a Carpenter in White-Chapel, with whom he had been two Years, he left him, upon the account of his great Severity to him and his Hastiness in giving him Blows on the Head, and anywhere else he could hit…That as soon as he had left him, he went to serve another Carpenter, who was to maintain him for his Work till he had serv’d out the Remainder of his Time, which was five Years; but of those…he had not serv’d above two when he committed the Fact he now stood condemn’d for; which he confess’d, but said it was his first, and would be his last, if he should live never so long.

May 1728 Execution at Tyburn:  George Gale alias Kiddy George, about 17 Years of Age…born of Honest Parents who took care of his Education at School, and instructed him in the Christian Religion, and afterwards put him to a House Carpenter or Joyner, which Business he never followed; but was one of the most wicked, cross and disobedient Boys upon Earth; and married without his Parents Consent. He committed many Robberies, and was a constant Thief for a considerable Time…

Next, we have this fellow and an 18th century version of ‘Wanted!’: Advertisement for January 13, 1716:  Whereas James Goodman alias Footman, made his escape (with Irons on, by leaping over the Spikes of the Bail-Dock and the Rails) at the Sessions-House in the Old Bailey, on Saturday last, being the 14th Instant, about 6 in the Evening; he is about 37 Years of Age, 5 Foot 10 Inches high, much Pock-fretten, has many Freckles in his Face and Hands, a wide Mouth, down Look, speaks very broad, a reddish beard, but did wear a brown wig, a Carpenter by Trade, and lately live at Aylesbury…He was shot in the Nape of the Neck about a month since, when he was taken, which Wound is not yet well, and several small Pieces of his Scull taken out of his Wound. Whoever can discover the said Person, so that he be brought to Justice, shall receive Twenty Pounds reward from Bodenham Rowse Head Turnkey of Newgate.

Cabinetmakers were a different story and were usually the victims of a crime instead of the perpetrator.  In some cases we learn a bit more about them as in this example from March 1798:


John Westfield a cabinetmaker with Banner and Bruce’s Coachmakers in Long-Acre went to the country for six weeks. John Robinson, age 24, was a carpenter who worked for Westfield as a porter. While Westfield was away Robinson stole a pannel saw, carcase saw, sash saw, dove-tail saw, a stock, 27 bits and one saw pad. 

Westfield:  When I returned I found the chest broken open in the shop, and the articles in the indictment taken out; they have all been found since. In consequence of a suspicion…got a warrant, and went with the officer to search the prisoner’s lodgings; I found the small saw pad in his chest…

Westfield further testifies that his shop employs 7 to 9 men and sometimes Robinson did some work other than being a porter. Tools were sometimes lent to Robinson, but never the items that were stolen from the locked chest.

John Wray-Officer:  searched the prison’s lodgings…I found two boxes, a number of duplicates [pawnbroker tickets], some saws, one stock and a centre-bit.

William Crouch-Officer:  (Produces a stock and bits, and a saw)…I took them of a young woman who said they were her husband’s.

Cross-examination of Crouch:  Q. I believe you know it is no unusual thing, when poor people have duplicates that they sell them, and honest persons sometimes get possession of duplicates of things improperly come by?  A. It is very often the case. 

Westfield:  That is my saw, it is my own sharpening; the stock has my own name engraved upon it at length.

Cross-examination of Westfield:  Q. Do you mean to swear that this is your saw, merely because it is of your sharpening-do you sharpen differently from anybody else?  A. There is a great deal of difference in sharpening, the same as difference in handwriting.

Q. Because it is done in a more bungling way than common, perhaps?  A. I do not know but it is.  Q. Any young beginner might blunder in the same way?  A. There is as much difference as there is in handwriting.

John Robinson was found guilty of grand larceny and sentenced to six months confinement in Newgate Prison and fined 1s. A century earlier Robinson would have been condemned to death.

While some of the Old Bailey proceedings were very grim reading (execution for theft of a handkerchief in the 17th century), other cases brought to mind Horace Rumpole and his constant defense of the Timson crime clan…the window was already broken when I reached in and my hand happened to land on the silver plate.

Suzanne Ellison

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8 Responses to Troublesome Carpenters at The Old Bailey

  1. “There is a great deal of difference in sharpening, the same as difference in handwriting.”
    A beautiful quote from an unlikely source!

    • Joshua,

      I think it applies to all forms of sharpening. When my stolen miter plane was recovered I looked at the tool’s edge and knew immediately that the thief hadn’t used the plane. I recognize my edges – both grinding and honing – even many years old. I wouldn’t have believed it if I hadn’t seen it.

  2. I realize this is minutiae, but are we going with hung now? It was drilled into me at school that if it’s an execution, one uses “hanged”, if it’s laundry it’s “hung”. No?

  3. oldbaleine says:

    If ſomeone ſtole my ſaſh ſaw, I would take after him with my ſharpeſt ſword, ſ-words!

  4. This reminds me of Marx’s section in Capital on “The Bloody Legislation Against the Expropriated.” Ah, the glorious monarchy.

  5. So some joiners and cabinet makers DID sharpen their own saws. That’s the first time I’ve seen proof of it in print. Thanks much!

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