A tale of crime and punishment

Recently, I’ve been blogging about William Porden’s journeys, taken from diaries (archive ref D3311/4/1-7) written between the 1790s and 1820s.  There is more to these diaries than travel, however.

In 1820, William Porden recounts a sorry tale about his housemaid, Eliza Watson, which shows that he still retained the merciful attitude towards criminals he showed over 25 years earlier when he recounted the tale of an escaped prisoner.  On 5 October 1820 he has two visitors:

I was summoned to attend two Gentlemen whom I found to be Mr Mortlake [actually Mr Mortlock], the eminent manufacturer & dealer in Ornamental China and an Officer from the Police Office of Marlborough Street. They came in search of Eliza Wilmot, my House maid who was to have left her place that Evening and to be married on Saturday morning.  She was accused in being concerned with the Man she was going to marry who was her cousin & confidential servant of Mr Mortlock, in robbing Mr M of a considerable quantity of China, a practice that had been continued some years.  She was questioned and confessed that she had received money from him, and it appeared by a Book that was found that she had placed in the Saving Bank upward of 70£ the last deposit of £20 being Feby last.  Her Box was afterwards searched and China Cups, Smelling Bottles and other articles were found that sufficiently proved her guilty of receiving them to be stolen.  I was much shocked at this discovery, for although Eliza was not a good servant in her situation my daughter thought her a Good Girl and often spoke of her in those words as a reason for retaining her, and she had taken some pains that day to find a handsome shawl to be given to her when she left the House.

Mr Porden is torn between wanting to assist the police and his desire not to let Eliza incriminate herself, although the next morning…

 I had the mortification to find that I also had been robbed for many things were discovered at Mr Mortlock’s with my name upon them and in Eliza’s trunk was found a work-box of my daughters. She was taken to Marlborough Street for Examination.… calling at the office I there identified 4 Sheets, a table Cloth, a Napkin and 2 Brushes which had had my initials cut upon them by order of my Wife to prevent the stealing of them by the servants which frequently happened.

Although distressed by the theft, Mr Porden appears more upset on Eliza’s behalf, when she is remanded to the Clerkenwell Bridewell [prison]:

What must have been her distress to find a comfortable home, a plentiful table, and society of her own rank and creditable in their Stations, exchanged for a cheerless Prison – the Prison fare and the company of wretches who have lost sight of every moral or religious feeling. Whatever sentiments of this nature she still retained were now to be changed for the depravity of her associates till she became as wicked as themselves.  … I believe that no punishment that she will hereafter receive will be so severe as what she will feel during the first 24 hours of imprisonment.

Mr Porden recovers his stolen property and doesn’t prosecute Eliza.  He hopes that she has learnt her lesson and writes:

It appeared that she had at first resisted the temptation of her Cousin to whom she was going to be married, but as he continued the practice of robbing his Master she was at length drawn in to aid him in nefarious conduct…. The Articles she stole [from] me such as Sheets & blankets seemed preparatory to House keeping. If I had prosecuted her, she would have been sent to Prison and if a single feeling of religion was left it would have been extinguished and she would have come out seven times worse than she went in, even if she was not brought to trial.  If she were brought to trial and escaped either transportation or death, one or other of which would in all probability have been her doom, her character would have forever blasted and she would have no other resource than vicious courses till she was gradually ripened for the Gallows.

Eliza calls on him to thank him on 12 October, and it sounds as if he may have read her a bit of a lecture!  Her fiancé did not benefit from such leniency from Mr Mortlock.  Eliza’s fiancé was  Daniel Gentle, aged 26.  He was actually Mr Mortlock’s Warehouseman, who, with William Read (the confidential servant), was indicted at the Old Bailey on 28 October 1820.   Both were sentenced to death.  The Criminal Registers for Middlesex are on Ancestry and show that Daniel Gentle was executed.  After his execution, it looks like Daniel’s body was claimed by his relatives and a Daniel Gentle, aged 27 years, was buried in the Gibraltar Burial Ground at Bethnal Green on 14 December 1820.  You can read the account of his trial on the Old Bailey Online website.

Mr Porden’s last mention of Eliza was when she called for a letter for a Mrs Foy on 15 October 1820, so it’s hard to know what happened to her after that.  Searching for Eliza Watson in the Old Bailey Online brings us several similar thefts over the years, some of which may have been committed by the same Eliza Watson, but it’s hard to be sure, as it’s a common name.

The most likely ones are an Eliza Watson, aged 25, who is indicted for stealing some fabric from a draper in 1824. She pleaded distress, had a good character, and was recommended to mercy and fined a shilling.  In 1830, an Eliza Watson, aged 32, is indicted for stealing fabric from a linen draper in 1830, again pleaded poverty, had a good character, and was recommended to mercy and confined for 1 month.

These could possibly be Mr Porden’s former housemaid, who, despite not being prosecuted the first time around, might have found it difficult to gain employment without a good reference and been forced, by poverty, back into crime – but that’s just supposition.  Let’s hope instead that Eliza recovered from the tragedy of her fiancé’s execution, and was able to avoid having to take recourse to ‘vicious courses’ as Mr Porden feared.

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