The Modern Jack Sheppard, or, A Most Determined Young Ruffian

Convicts exercising at Pentonville Prison.  Image in Henry Mayhew and John Binny The Criminal Prisons of London (1862) page 49.

After eighty-eight days at sea the convict ship Lord Raglan sailed into port at Fremantle in Western Australia.  The crew and the guards and the accompanying wives and children looked forward to the freedom of life on land after what had been an exhausting journey.  Then the crew would return to England, while the guards, who were mostly military veterans, would remain with their families to start new lives in Australia.

The two hundred and sixty-eight male convicts on board—at one time there had been two hundred and seventy but two had died en route—were destined for hard physical labour building the infrastructure of Fremantle.  Among them was a nineteen-year-old Londoner called Thomas Dennis, who in spite of his swagger and newly acquired anchor tattoo was anxiously wondering what his sentence of fourteen years of transportation would mean, so far away from family and friends.

View of St Sepulchre Church north west of Newgate.  Watercolour by John Coney dated 1812.  © British Museum

Thomas had been born on Sunday the 27th of January 1838, and baptised a few days later at St Sepulchre-Without-Newgate just north of the Old Bailey—an institution with which he would become very familiar.  His family, although hard working, were not wealthy.  His father, Thomas Dennis senior, was a porter and a car-man, that is to say the Victorian equivalent of a white van man.  His mother, Ann, took in laundry and lodgers and cared for her four children, whose names were John, Thomas, Elizabeth and Sarah.  Unlike many working-class children at this time the Dennis children all attended school.

Gate of the Fleet Prison.  Watercolour by John Wykeham Archer dated 1829.  © British Museum

Our story begins on Wednesday the 12th of September 1854 when the family were living in Seacoal Lane, a small road off Farringdon Street in the City of London and close to Newgate Prison—another institution Thomas would get to know—and around the corner from the site of the Fleet Prison—an institution Thomas would never get to know, as it had been demolished in 1846.  On this particular morning, needing to buy bread, Ann went into her bedroom and opened the tea chest in which she and her husband kept their earnings.  She was dismayed to see that a very considerable amount of money was missing, five and a half sovereigns and thirty-five silver shillings to be precise, which would now be worth in the region of four hundred pounds.  As her husband would never have taken such a sum without her knowledge, her suspicions initially turned to the lodgers, who were variously car-men and porters and labourers, and an unemployed man on parish relief.

But that evening her son Thomas, who at the time was sixteen years old, did not return home at the expected hour.  Then with a sinking heart Ann remembered that in the morning she had caught him coming out of her bedroom, which was unusual, as was his claim that he had gone in there to borrow a hairbrush.  Ann now had reason to suspect her son, for even at his young age Thomas had a reputation in the neighbourhood as a troublesome and dishonest youth.  His behaviour had upset his parents, and in particular had created a good deal of tension between him and his father, and now his mother had made up her mind to report the theft and her suspicions to the police.

Plate from John Howard The State of the Prisons in England and Wales (1792) between pages 212 and 213.

After taking the money the neatly coiffed Thomas had headed south of the river to no.1 New Cut in Lambeth.  (New Cut is now The Cut, which runs parallel with Waterloo station).  Here at Mr Lawrence’s general store Thomas was able to buy two pistols along with powder and shot for eight shillings. He intended to shoot his father, but before committing patricide he decided that an evening’s entertainment was in order.  Accordingly he made his way to the Royal Victoria Theatre, a popular haunt of the working classes—now the Old Vic—opposite the railway station.  The two plays being performed that evening eerily foretold his future.  First up was Paul Clifford, a romance based on a novel of the same name by Edward Bulwer-Lytton about a gentlemanly highwayman, who is transported for his crimes but manages to escape to America, where he makes a new life with his sweetheart.  The second feature was the drama Captain Cook, his Life, Adventures and Death about the famous explorer of the antipodes.  Thomas bought a ticket for the pit—the cheapest and usually the most rowdy part of the theatre—and settled down for the show.

John Harrington, Police Constable 62 of the “L” or Lambeth division, was looking out for miscreants in the theatre when Thomas Dennis was pointed out to him.  Harrington attempted to apprehend the young thief.  But Thomas, his evening’s entertainment rudely interrupted, produced a pistol from his pocket.  He levelled the weapon and pulled the trigger, but fortunately for Harrington, whose head was in the firing line, it did not go off.  Undeterred Thomas pulled the pistol’s twin from his other pocket, but Harrington was saved again, this time by a member of the audience who disarmed the lad.  Thomas was taken first into custody, and then to court, and never got to see the plays.

View of Millbank Prison by James Tingle after the drawing by Thomas Hosmer Shepherd.  Engraving dated 1829.  © British Museum

The newspaper reports of his trial at the Old Bailey doubtless offended the delinquent lad.  He was described as a diminutive young urchin not above the age of fourteen, which is certainly not what your average aggressive and dishonest sixteen-year-old cock of the walk wants to read about himself.  But he saved face by admitting, somewhat truculently, that he had stolen thirty shillings from his parents to facilitate shooting his father.  He was sentenced to a year in Millbank Prison, and, although his time in the gloomy prison on its marshy site by the Thames may have been a punishment, it did nothing to reform his character.

By January 1856, having been released from prison, Thomas was living with his foolishly or optimistically forgiving parents at 4 Boar’s Head Court in Smithfield.  He worked as a labourer but preferred the easy pickings of crime.  A rather lazy thief, Thomas looked no further than home for his prey, and victims now were his mother’s lodgers.  First he relieved a car-man, David Birch, of clothing worth one pound ten shillings.  Then he stole from a fellow by the name of Charles Ling, with whom he shared a room, breaking into the box where Ling stored his belongings, and helping himself to a coat, some trousers, a waistcoat, a black handkerchief, two caps and a pair of Wellington boots.  By then he had been given the nickname “Jack Sheppard” by local admirers, and when the police were told about the missing items, which were presumably Ling’s best clothes, and worth two pounds thirteen shillings, he was the obvious suspect.

Coloured lithograph drawn by George Cruikshank for the play Jack Sheppard.  Dated 1854.  © British Museum

Now the original Jack Sheppard was an eighteenth-century criminal who was known for his daring thefts and burglaries and his audacious prison escapes.  The only similarity I can see with Thomas Dennis was Sheppard’s youth: he was only twenty-two when he was hanged at Tyburn.  He was “Honest Jack” to many, a sort of latter-day Robin Hood.  (Not that I can see any altruistic tendencies in either his or his namesake’s behaviour.)  He was the inspiration for MacHeath in The Beggar’s Opera.  He was the hero in William Harrison Ainsworth’s novel Jack Sheppard.  He was the protagonist in numerous plays and skits.  When Henry Mayhew and John Binny interviewed criminals for The Criminal Prisons of London they found that

a number avowed that they had been induced to resort to an abandoned course of life from reading the lives of notorious thieves, and novels about highway robbers,

and that

when asked what they thought about Jack Sheppard several bawled out “He’s a regular brick.”

The admiration for Sheppard was such that the Lord Chamberlain refused to licence plays containing his name for forty years: it was feared that his exploits might inspire the young.  No doubt Thomas revelled in his nickname.

When the petite “Jack Sheppard” of Smithfield was apprehended he had with him a knife and a handkerchief and David Birch’s caps, the other clothes having probably been pawned for ready money.  In early February, aged just eighteen, he appeared at the Old Bailey, which by a strange irony was situated only a short walk from the family home.  When Sir Henry Muggeridge asked for the prosecution if the defendant was known to the police, William Springate, the gaoler at Newgate Prison, where Thomas had held before the trial, said he was, adding that this “atrocious young villain” had already been tried at the Old Bailey for stealing and firing a pistol at a policeman.  Unlike his hero, Jack Sheppard, a morose Thomas did not escape from Newgate, and he ended up being sentenced to four years of penal servitude, the first part of which would be served at Pentonville Model Prison.

View of Pentonville Prison in the early 1840s.  Image in The Illustrated London News 13 August 1842.

Pentonville had opened in 1842, and operated the “separate system” of locking inmates in their individual cells for twenty-three hours of the day.  In these small rooms, measuring thirteen feet by seven, the prisoners slept, and worked, and ate.  They were required to reflect on their crimes without “cross-contamination” from others, and to this end they wore hoods over their faces when moving around the prison.  Even the chapel was designed to stop men seeing each other.  The rules were strictly enforced, being read to inmates when they arrived, put up in cells for those who could read, and reinforced with a monthly retelling for those who could not.  Not surprisingly there was a high incidence of poor mental health.

Like other inmates Thomas was expected to spend a nine-month probationary period in Pentonville before being transferred to do public works at Woolwich or Portsmouth or Portland.  He was also set to learn a trade in the hope that he would turn from a life of crime and become an honest and industrious citizen.  And really he had no excuse for disobeying the rules, as he could read, even if poorly.  But, as we know, he was not one to follow rules, and one day in October 1856 a warder in the exercise yard spotted him talking with his fellow prisoners.  The transgression was reported to the governor, who warned Thomas to expect punishment, and sent him back to his solitary confinement.

Prisoner in the punishment cell at Millbank.  Image in Henry Mayhew and John Binny The Criminal Prisons of London (1862) page 249.

The warder who had reported Thomas was thirty-four-year-old Edward Beaven, a native of Colne in Wiltshire.  He had trained as a shoemaker before becoming an assistant warder instructor at Pentonville, living within the precincts of the prison with his wife, Mary Ann.  Now one morning, not long after the incident in the exercise yard, a bell summoned him to the room where the brooding Thomas was making a pair of shoes.  Thomas petulantly demanded another sole, throwing the one he had been given, which was too small for the shoe he was making, down on the floor.  Patiently picking it up Beaven went off to get another, which he gave to Thomas on his return.  As he turned to leave the room he felt a sharp blow to his left shoulder.  Thomas wrestled him to the ground, threatening him with a pair of claws.  “You b—,” he shouted, “I will knock your brains out for you.”  Beaven had to call for help three times before another warder, Michael Laffan, came to the rescue.  Laffan soon saw why his colleague was breathing with difficulty, and was in so much pain, for a sharpened shoemaker’s knife, to which a file had been attached as a handle, was lodged in his back.

As Thomas was led off, one of the warders warned him that Beaven was very ill, but his characteristic reply was that he did not care, and that he hoped that the man would die.  He was taken to the punishment cells, which are described by Mayhew and Binny as follows:

We entered the terrible place with a shudder, for there is something intensely horrible in absolute darkness to all minds, confess it or not as they may; and as the warder shut the door upon us—and we felt the cell walls shake and moan again, like a tomb, as he did so—the utter darkness was, as Milton sublimely says—”visible”.  The eyes not only saw, but felt the absolute negation of their sense in such a place.  Let them strain their utmost not one luminous chink or crack could the sight detect.  Indeed, the very air seemed as impervious to vision as so much black marble, and the body seemed to be positively encompassed with the blackness, as if it were buried alive, deep down in the earth itself.

Beaven at least had the good fortune to survive the attack, and for a time he returned to work at Pentonville.  But he may have suffered long-term effects on his health, as by 1871, when he was only forty-nine years old, he had retired from the prison service.  Nor did he make old bones.  He died at the age of fifty-five, leaving Mary Ann all of twenty pounds.

For his trial Thomas was back close to home at the Old Bailey, charged with felonious wounding with the intent to murder or to do grievous bodily harm.  He was quickly found guilty, and fourteen years of transportation were added to the four of his existing sentence.  On the 31st of August 1857 his parents visited him one last time before he was transferred to Portsmouth Prison.  The records make it clear that here too he flouted the rules, and only weeks after he departed these shores on board the Lord Raglan, which left Portsmouth for the Swan River Colony on the 5th of March 1858, he was up to his old tricks, threatening to kill a guard.  He was locked up for seventy-two hours in the punishment box, a dark and confined space in the bows of the ship where he was unable to lie down or stand up, and had only bread and water for company.

Fremantle at the entrance to Swan River in Australia.  Watercolour by Edwin Augustus Porcher dated 1843.  © National Library of Australia

After six years in Australia Thomas was given his ticket of leave, which allowed him to work for himself on condition that he reported regularly to the authorities and attended church.  The following year he received a pardon which gave him his freedom but did not allow him to return to England.  Subsequently, as well as being arrested for drunkenness on several occasions, he worked as a sawyer, and in 1870 he joined a whaling crew.  Whether or not he was ever reunited with his family, I do not know.  His parents lived and died in London, as did two siblings, John and Elizabeth.  But I like to think that he might have made his way to New Zealand to join his youngest sister, Sarah, who had emigrated with her husband, George Green, to Hawkes Bay.

© london-overlooked 2021


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