Authors: Patrick Dillon
Peering through the shutters, Thomas De Veil spotted a ringleader. No one ever accused De Veil of ducking a fight. ‘Observing among the rest a profligate fellow, who was the great encourager of this tumultuous assembly, (one Roger Allen) and who encouraged them to pull down the Justice’s house and kill the informers, [he] had him seized.’ But it took the army to disperse the crowd and escort the two informers to safety. Roger Allen was committed to Newgate under the Riot Act. He was ‘the first of that kind to be tried, since the Gin Act took place.’
The authorities had every reason to be worried. It wasn’t only the failure of the Riot Act. Attacks on informers were getting more frequent. Within a week of an informer being murdered in Chelsea, two other women had been attacked, one in Brewer Street and one in Bond Street. When an informer hid from an angry crowd in a house in Phoenix Street, the crowd pulled the house down. There were more rescues as well. A few days before the riot in Thrift
Street, a waterman’s wife had been convicted for selling gin near Christ Church Spitalfields, and sent to Bridewell, ‘but the mob having notice thereof rescued her just as the constable was delivering her into the keeper’s hands.’
It happened again in Southwark a fortnight later.
It couldn’t go on. A law was being disregarded. Rioting had broken out; informers had been killed; convicted criminals had been rescued and set free. It was time for the clamp-down to begin.
On 8 March 1738 the King issued a proclamation. It demanded measures ‘for putting in Execution the … Act against retailing of Spirituous Liquors, and for protecting the Officers of Justice, and all others … to assist the Magistrates therein.’ It called for ‘suppressing all Combinations and Confedaracies [which] encourage Disobedience to the said Law; and for punishing all Attempts … to insult and abuse those who give Informations.’ But the Gin Act was only half of its concern. It was also a proclamation ‘for putting in Execution the Act of Parliament made against Riots.’ The ministry was as worried about the failure of the Riot Act as the failure of the Gin Act. Now, more than ever, prohibition was about authority. Alongside the clamp-down on gin, there would be a general push on law and order. Fifty-two would be hanged at Tyburn that year.
If they were going to win the battle, the magistrates needed more than proclamations, and Parliament was ready to give it to them. It was Sir Joseph Jekyll himself who, in the last week of March, brought in the ‘Act for enforcing the execution [of the Gin Act]’.
It was a last-ditch measure. The Bill, the
London Evening Post
had no doubt, ‘will put an end to
Puss and Mew
, and all other tricks and artifices to evade the law, and entirely prevent the retailing of [gin].’
It was a Bill against bootleggers. It attacked clandestine gin-sellers who ‘are not seen, but are hid behind some wainscot, curtain, partition, or are otherwise concealed.’ It was
an Act against Dudley Bradstreet. Prohibition was leaking like a sieve, and desperately the Enforcement Act tried to plug the holes. It defended JPs against malicious prosecution. It sorted out licensing in tenements with multiple sub-lets. Rescuers and people who assaulted informers would be transported. Constables who ‘refused or neglected to be aiding or assisting in the execution of the … Acts’ would be liable to a £20 fine.
The magistrates had new teeth and a Royal Proclamation to back them up. Now they were ready for the clamp-down. One by one, the various divisions of London justices gathered to agree their strategy. The Tower Hamlets magistrates, chaired by Sir John Gonson, decided on daily sittings to prosecute gin-sellers. In Westminster the magistrates gathered at the Court of King’s Bench in Westminster Hall. They found themselves sitting alongside the steps where Robert Nixon’s bomb had exploded. They resolved on a general meeting to instruct constables, and a standing magistrates’ court to meet three days a week.
The Commissioners of Excise would be requested to give support. A clerk was appointed.
Thomas De Veil was among them. For him, of course, it all meant more work and more trouble. He was getting used to that by now. When fellow freemason William Hogarth published
Night, March 25, 1738
(the date was in the week of the magistrates’ meetings) it showed someone emptying a chamber pot on Thomas De Veil’s head. In February, De Veil had been rewarded with a sinecure in the Customs Office, but there must have been times when he wondered whether it was all worth it. A story in the papers the year before had had everyone laughing up their sleeves. A barrow-boy who was taking a quartern of gin to De Veil’s house to inform on a gin-seller met some friends on the way and ‘could not keep the secret, but told [them] of his design, and let them see the liquor.’ One of his friends diverted his attention while the others drank the gin, then ‘piss’d about the same quantity in the bottle.’
Unsuspecting, the boy took the bottle of urine to De Veil, ‘and told him he was come to inform against a person who had just sold him a quartern.’ Thomas de Veil ‘ordered a glass to be brought, and some of the liquor to be poured into it, which he tasted.’
For magistrates, as well as for everyone else, the Gin Act could leave a nasty taste in the mouth.
Higher up the political ladder, events were being monitored closely by the Duke of Newcastle, who had overall responsibility for affairs in Middlesex. He asked magistrates for monthly reports, with statistics. Tacked onto the end of each report he wanted remarks on how the constables were performing. The problem of the constables hadn’t gone away. The Westminster magistrates had agreed unanimously that one of their biggest problems was ‘the numbers of persons serving the office of High Constable, Constables & Headborough, who are dealers in liquor.’ But for once the authorities were prepared to put their own house in order. In May, the papers reported that ‘for the future no victualler, distiller, coffee-man, or any other person whatsoever dealing in spirituous liquors, will be permitted to serve the offices of constable or headborough.’
It spelled the end for the gin-selling constables who had sabotaged the magistrates’ surveys and dragged their feet over enforcement. A constable called Percival, landlord of the Blacksmith’s Arms at Chelsea, had boasted that all through prohibition he had gone on selling gin at his pub undisturbed. Now his wife was hauled up for a £10 fine.
If it was any comfort to him, the constables weren’t the only ones being purged. The Enforcement Act stopped distillers from acting as JPs in any matter to do with gin. In May, all magistrates would be banned from taking fees on Gin Act prosecutions. And in August the Lord Chancellor would make a clean sweep of the Middlesex Bench, striking out no fewer than seventy-five trading justices, timeservers and lame ducks. ‘Informers now may find th’
employment bad,’ crowed the
, breaking into verse. ‘And Justice may from Justices be had.’
That remained to be seen. For the Westminster magistrates, the clamp-down began with a pep-talk in Westminster Hall. Their chairman, Nathaniel Blackerby, was the son-in-law of the architect Nicholas Hawksmoor, recently deceased. He exhorted Westminster’s magistrates to ‘resolution, courage and perseverance.’
Just like the MPs in Parliament next door, Blackerby could see what would happen if the attacks on informers went on. ‘If … persons who lay the informations before the justices are … to be knocked on the head … how are our laws ever to be carried into execution? … If there be no information, in consequence … laws made by the wisdom of Parliament … will all prove a dead letter.’ As the magistrates filed out of the hall, none of them stopped to ponder the significance of the date. It was April Fools’ Day, 1738.
The first special session was held two days later. It wasn’t a particularly auspicious start. A woman called Martha Walker was committed to Bridewell. Two other precepts were sent out, but neither gin-seller could be found. The magistrates didn’t give up, though. By the end of the month eighteen cases had been heard by the special sessions, and another thirty-three by Thomas De Veil in Thrift Street. Two gin-sellers had been discharged, eighteen paid the £10 fine, thirty were committed to Bridewell, and one escaped. Forty-two magistrates had taken part in the hearings (including James Oglethorpe, making a token appearance before he went back to Georgia). The constables had ‘behav’d very well.’ They were using new short staves, to make them less conspicuous when they were shepherding informers. As another way of avoiding attacks, the magistrates had also agreed to pay for informers to be picked up in hackney coaches.
It hadn’t all been smooth going. A woman called Judith Walmsley went down for contempt of court after ‘threatening the
informers that she would wait their coming out.’ But by the end of the month there was ‘great unanimity among the Justices,’ Nathaniel Blackerby reported to the Duke of Newcastle, ‘who … can and will carry on this service with that duty and zeal as becomes them.’
But duty and zeal weren’t going to be enough. The clamp-down was about to run into trouble almost before it had started. Six weeks in, on 10 May, Roger Allen’s case came up for trial.
The authorities probably thought the timing would work their way. The Enforcement Act received Royal Assent the same week. Maybe they thought that hanging Roger Allen would make a good example. Even so, there were some in the ministry who had twinges of doubt. The solicitor of the Treasury, Nicholas Paxton, was one of them, and he had a reputation for common sense. The way Paxton saw it, ‘as the Ginn-Act was in the judgment of most people, a very severe law, it would look like doubling the severity of it, to make it become the subject of a capital prosecution, and therefore he was against it.’
In the end it was Thomas De Veil himself who insisted Roger Allen’s trial should go ahead. Maybe the Gin Act was starting to get to Thomas De Veil. Maybe he couldn’t forget that quartern of urine. Maybe he just had it in for Roger Allen. The month after the riot he had sent down Allen’s wife, Mary, for house-breaking.
To the authorities, after all, it seemed an open-and-shut case. You couldn’t stage more of a riot than the trouble Roger Allen had fomented outside Thomas De Veil’s house. He had ignored the Riot Act, threatened informers, and tried to assault a magistrate. A crowd of a thousand had watched him do it, and so had the court justice, peering out through the shutters. If there was anyone in London they could throw the book at, it was Roger Allen. To the authorities, it didn’t seem as if anything could possibly go wrong.
Except that someone, somewhere, stumped up the cash for a defence lawyer. The lawyer could see exactly what Roger Allen’s
trial was about. He could see what the Gin Act was about; he could see what Londoners thought of prohibition, and Thomas De Veil, and informers, and what they were likely to think of Roger Allen. His first move was an objection ‘to all Esquires being on the Jury.’
Most people saw the Gin Act as an attack by the rich on the poor. Roger Allen was going to be tried by a jury of the poor.
The defence didn’t waste time querying the details of the case against Roger Allen. In a six-hour trial, as Thomas De Veil’s biographer put it, ‘the facts were incontestably proved.’ They took a different tack instead. Roger Allen pleaded insanity. His old master swore ‘he was so weak and silly he could be of no service to him in his trade, nor would he ever learn it.’ Allen’s mother ‘depos[ed] he was
a silly weak fellow
.’ The jury couldn’t deny what had happened in Thrift Street, but they weren’t being asked to. The defence had given them room for manoeuvre. After an hour’s deliberation, Roger Allen was acquitted of all charges.
Public reaction was ecstatic. ‘Westminster Hall was so full one might have walked on the people’s heads,’ reported the
London Evening Post
, ‘and the mob on hearing of his being acquitted, were so insolent as to huzza for a considerable time, whilst the court was sitting. In the Hall Yard a set of butchers waited for the issue, and finding the fellow was acquitted, they rung him home with a peal upon their marrow-bones and cleavers.’ That was the traditional fanfare of Londoners’ disrespect. As for the hero of the moment, now legally classified insane, the crowd chaired him out of the hall and set him up on a wall in Old Palace Yard. Roger Allen decided to make a speech. He was feeling pleased with himself. He should have been on his way to Tyburn; instead, he was the hero of the hour. ‘Gentlemen,’ he said, ‘I thank you very kindly for this honour, but the great liberty of mobbing a justice now and then (and my own life) had been certainly lost, if I had not had wit enough to prove myself a fool.’
For the authorities, it was a devastating blow. They were supposed to be living in the Age of Oligarchy. They were defending the Riot Act, their main weapon of social control, and a recent law which was the subject of a vigorous enforcement drive. No one in London disputed what Roger Allen had done. And despite all that, they had failed to bring in a verdict against him. It was a blow to Thomas De Veil’s prestige, and a blow for the clamp-down on the Gin Act. The Westminster magistrates tried to pick up the pieces a few days after the trial. Even before Allen’s acquittal, two constables had had to abandon an arrest when some passers-by started shouting, ‘“Informers, Mob them,”’ and ‘followed the constables all the way to the Old Palace Yard calling out “Mob them, Mob them” several times.’
Now, the High Constable told the bench, ‘on Allen’s being acquitted the constables were afraid to go out with precepts as they had done, lest the populace, encouraged by his acquittal, should rise on them. And … the Excise Officer who [attends] the Justices … inform’d the bench that the witnesses were so terrified on Allen’s acquittal that he could not prevail on many of them to appear as usual.’ No gin-sellers were sent to Bridewell that day.