Arson in eighteenth-century London (part 1)

Arson was infrequently prosecuted in the Old Bailey in eighteenth-century London. There are fewer than 100 reported trials in the Old Bailey Proceedings Online database for the period 1674-1834, out of a total of more than 100,000 trials (including, for example, more than 4900 burglaries and 2300 homicides).[1] This might at first seem surprising, given just how seriously arson was viewed within early modern societies.

The publication of reports of the trials held at the Old Bailey began in the 1670s, when memories of the Great Fire of London would still have been all too fresh; but London was far from being the only urban centre in early modern Britain to be ravaged in that way. Many buildings were timber-framed, lit by candles and heated by wood fires, and running water was in short supply, as were organised fire fighters; if a fire did take hold in a close-packed urban street, there might be little that could done to stop it rapidly spreading. That was what made it so very frightening.[2]

Large-scale urban fires in particular generated conspiracy theories and hunts for scapegoats, often religious minorities. (Conversely, conforming to the approved forms of piety could work in one’s favour: a maidservant tried for arson in 1679 (a time of intense anti-Catholic sentiment, following the Popish Plot and in the midst of the ensuing Exclusion Crisis) was acquitted, the reporter explained, because of a lack of “direct proof” and because she “was of very good Reputation, well educated in the Protestant Religion, so far from a Papist, that she had been that day with her Master and Mistriss at Church”.)

Protestant nations blamed Catholics, Catholic countries blamed Protestants. Anyone could, on occasion, blame Jews, witches, vagrants, servants, foreigners, or some other convenient local hate figures. Alternatively, such fires might be seen (along with plagues, famines, wars, etc) as a punishment from an angry God, a warning of society’s urgent need for moral reformation. Indeed, sometimes authorities pressed the ‘hand of God’ explanation apparently in conscious efforts to calm the spread of panic and paranoia.[3]

The eighteenth-century jurist William Blackstone expressed commonly held views about the repugnance of arson:

This is an offence of very great malignity, and much more pernicious to the public than simple theft: because, first, it is an offence against that right, of habitation, which is acquited by the law of nature as well as by the laws of society; next because of the terror and confusion that necessarily attends it; and, lastly, because in simple theft the thing stolen only changes it’s [sic] master, but still remains in esse for the benefit of the public, whereas by burning the very substance is absolutely destroyed. It is also frequently more destructive than murder itself, of which too it is often the cause: since murder, atrocious as it is, seldom extends beyond the felonious act designed; whereas fire too frequently involves in the common calamity persons unknown to the incendiary, and not intended to be hurt by him, and friends as well as enemies.[4]

There were, nonetheless, degrees of heinousness. One reason for the small number of cases at the Old Bailey is that only particularly serious forms of fire-setting were likely to be tried there, in which houses or other buildings had been entirely or nearly destroyed. Technicalities also affected the definition of the offence as properly ‘arson’: for example, it was merely a misdemeanour (albeit a serious one) to burn down one’s own house. On the other hand, the notorious ‘Black Act’ of 1723 newly made certain forms of arson capital felonies without benefit of clergy.[5]

But for the purposes of this essay, I shan’t be making fine legal distinctions. In part, I chose the topic because it provided a small enough sample to investigate the witness testimonies in the cases in some depth. (I’ve focused on reading trials before 1800, giving a total of 64 reports.) Additionally, there’s been a small but interesting amount of recent research on the topic; I’m following Bernard Capp’s advice to explore ‘the variety of contexts in which threats and fears of arson, as well as the crime itself, figured in the lives and discourse of contemporaries’.[6]

The cases were, indeed, quite varied. The firing of houses and outhouses, warehouses, barns, stables and hayricks, could all be the subject of arson prosecutions in the Old Bailey. The defendants were equally diverse, ranging from farmers and possibly quite substantial tradesmen to labourers, servants and apprentices. Between 1674 and 1834, 35 per cent of the defendants were female, compared to less than 20% of homicide defendants, 30 per cent of those on trial for theft, or 27 per cent of all Old Bailey defendants. Also, a substantial proportion of defendants were young people, teenagers, of both sexes. However, as Capp has also noted, arson was not simply a weapon of the weak and poor; it could also be used by social equals – or by the powerful against the weak.[7]

It should be noted that conviction rates at the Old Bailey were not very high. Just 28 per cent of defendants were found guilty (including partial verdicts), compared to 66 per cent of theft defendants and 48 per cent of homicide defendants. The small size of the arson sample means that these figures need to be treated with caution, but this relatively low conviction rate points to the evidentiary difficulties experienced in many of the cases. Many rested on circumstantial evidence, or material evidence that could require specialist interpretation.

Having said that the circumstances of the cases were quite varied, they could nonetheless be divided into a number of themes (partly overlapping with several discussed by Capp).[8]

1. dishonest or aggrieved servants;
2. a cover or distraction in order to commit theft;
3. quarrelling and malicious neighbours;
4. fraudulent insurance claims;
5. mental disturbance, depression or insanity;
6. political disturbances

I want to emphasise that these themes represent narratives presented at trials, mainly by accusers and sometimes by defendants, and neither side’s version of events can always be taken at face value. The strength of the prosecution evidence offered in trials is variable, and the low conviction rates might also warn against automatically assuming the guilt of those accused – especially when taken in conjunction with a number of cases in which it was clearly agreed that the accusations had been downright malicious and amounted to perjury (of which more shortly). Nonetheless, even if we can’t be sure of the facts of the matter in individual cases, the patterns that emerge suggest that there were particular ways in which people experienced and understood the crime of arson – and decided how its perpetrators should be treated.

In some circumstances, punishment was not seen as an appropriate response. In 1676, a woman was acquitted of burning down her master’s barn, even though she had confessed to the act:

However the Justice that committed her, assuring the Court from his personal knowledge, that the Prisoners Father was a very melancholy and distemper’d man, and that she her self had a defect in her understanding, and many times at least not the use of common Reason or Sense, and the Evidence against her in effect acknowledging as much, which was confirmed by her present stupid carriage at the Bar. The Jury looking upon her as Non Compos Mentis at the time of the Fact committed, could not finde her guilty in the eye of the Law.

Similarly, at the 1737 trial of John Wright it emerged that he had told the examining JP that “he had been in a melancholy Way, and that he did this [i.e, started the fire], in Order to be Hang’d… he seem’d to be in a very heavy dull Condition, and said, he wanted to get out of this Life…” This was corroborated by other witnesses and John was acquitted. (Further examples.)

The question of insanity also arose at the trial of Elizabeth Sedgwick in 1787. According to her own confession she had been “making toast in her mistress’s bed-chamber, for her master, mistress, three children and Mrs. Edwards, [when] she… suddenly thought that she would set fire to her said master’s barn”. Once she had finished the toast, she took a lighted candle and placed it on straw in the barn, which set off the fire – this after having almost set fire to her master’s hen house a week earlier (she said that had been an accident). She insisted there had been no malice or ill will; it just “arose from a sudden thought”. The examining magistrate presumably had some concerns about her state of mind, since he “ordered her to be detained, and no-body to be admitted to see her but her mother, and that nothing with which she could injure herself might be put in her reach, and that she should not have a candle, nor any thing to eat and drink that might affect her nerves”. However, her master and mistress described her as having been “perfectly calm and serene in her mind” up to the time of the fire, and other witnesses concurred. No one brought any evidence of ill will towards her employers or of any attempt at theft. But although her crime appeared otherwise irrational and inexplicable, Elizabeth did not behave according to eighteenth-century definitions of insanity, and she was convicted.

The largest single group of defendants were employees (servants, apprentices or, in one or two cases, more casual labourers) of those whose property they were accused of setting on fire: 25 of the 64 cases to 1800, with the highest proportions in the first couple of decades of the Proceedings. Their motives, if they had any, are often obscure, and in some cases, the fires were adjudged to have been simply the result of carelessness or accident (remembering that in law malicious intent was required for an arson charge). [Example].

However, one case where the motive was made explicit was that of Adam Mash, convicted of burning the ‘sheep-house’ and stables of William Newman in 1729. There were several witnesses who had heard him making threats against Newman and that he would “make a great Fire”. A witness had seen him at the sheep house on the night of the fire. The victim himself had asked him “why he bore such Malice? he said, because I did not give him Money enough for Reaping some Wheat”. Mash was apparently in dire straits, begging for money and sleeping in a barn. But any sympathy his poverty might have earned him was outweighed by his violent animosity towards Newman.

In a number of cases involving servants, it was alleged – or at least implied – that they had set the fire in order to steal under cover of the confusion that would ensue. At the very least some had taken advantage of a fire to steal from the house, clearly a risky move, since if they were caught, they were likely to be automatically suspected of the arson as well. This seems to have happened in the case of Sarah Small, tried both for the arson of her master’s house and for stealing various goods from him. She had given the goods to a carrier to transport into the city, and he shortly afterwards “heard there had been a fire at Mr. Hatch’s, which made me suspect the prisoner had robbed her master of these goods”. She was convicted of the theft, but acquitted of the arson charges: no evidence was brought against her.

Mary Benson, however, was convicted of both arson and theft in 1687. She had started the fire by filling a large iron-dish with “live Wood Coals, and putting part of Faggot upon them”, which she left in the kitchen, and then she made off with silver and valuables with a total value of over £70. And just to top it all off, she tried to lay the blame on the house’s other maidservant. On occasion, other servants or apprentices charged with arson/theft claimed that they had been incited or bribed to it; this didn’t tend to bring them much sympathy. Yet these were often very young people who might have been particularly susceptible to such approaches and the promise of money: John Mead, a ‘pot boy’, who said he’d been offered half a guinea to fire his master’s house, was just 16.

A form of arson that was regarded with particular revulsion was when professional thieves deliberate set fire to buildings in order to take advantage of the ensuing chaos, although there are only two cases in the Proceedings before 1800. Indeed, it was uncommon enough to occasion remarks about its novelty when it did occur. In what was described by the Proceedings reporter as “a most Notorious, New-found, base way, stealing”, Thomas Taylor was found guilty in 1691of setting fire to a barn near the house of Ralph Azowby in Islington, and of stealing various goods. He

was seen near [the barn], Crying out, Fire, fire, after which whil’st the Family went out of the House, to quench the Fire; he went up Stairs into the Chamber, where the Prosecutor’s Wife was and pretending to help her away with the Goods to save them from the Fire, he run away with the [goods].

A century later, Edward Lowe and William Jobbins were tried for plotting to use arson “to rob and plunder the inhabitants, while in confusion”. (A good deal of the prosecution evidence came from an associate who had informed against them, in return for a pardon). Despite good character witnesses, both were convicted, and the outraged judge, in the course of sentencing them, commented:

I hardly know how to address myself to you; I hardly know how to find words to express the abhorrence that I entertain, or that the publick entertain, of the crime of which you stand convicted. The setting fire to houses, in the dead of the night, for the purpose of plunder, at the risk of the lives of the inhabitants of a great city, is a crime not yet to be met with in the records of villainy that have been brought forward in this Court; and as the crime is singular, so the punishment must be marked, and I trust and hope it will be so marked as to make the example such, that if there should be left any persons of the same bad intentions, they will take warning from your fate; and as your crime has been singularly novel, I hope it will be the only one that will ever appear in a Court of Justice of the same description. You therefore must prepare to die, and consider yourselves as men without hope in this world; and give me leave to assure you, as my decided opinion, that for an offence so heinous as yours is, you never can expect salvation in the world to come, unless you make some reparation to your injured country and the God you have offended, by sincerely confessing all the offences of which you have been guilty, and by making the most open and declared exposition of the names of all persons, who either have engaged, or are about to engage, in crimes so detestable, as those of which you stand convicted.

(Continued in part 2)


1. All the figures used in this essay are derived either from the OBP statistical search facility or from the details of the 64 trials (1675-1794) that I consulted in the course of researching this essay. Back
2. Keith Thomas, Religion and the decline of magic (1971), pp.17-20; P. Roberts, ‘Arson, conspiracy and rumour in early modern Europe’, Continuity & Change, 12 (1997). Back
3. Roberts, ‘Arson, conspiracy and rumour’, pp.20-24; Bernard Capp, ‘Arson, threats of arson, and incivility in early modern England’, in P. Burke et al (eds), Civil histories: essays presented to Sir Keith Thomas (2000), pp.208-10. Back
4. W. Blackstone, Commentaries on the Laws of England, vol.III (1769), p.220. Back
5. Capp, ‘Arson, threats of arson’, p.199; Blackstone, Commentaries, III, pp.221-2; EP Thompson, Whigs & hunters: the origin of the Black Act (1975). Back
6. Capp, ‘Arson, threats of arson’, p.199. Back
7. Capp, ‘Arson, threats of arson’, pp.197-8. Back
8. Capp, ‘Arson, threats of arson’, pp.200-6. Back

NB: this post and part 2 are a contribution to the Old Bailey Proceedings Blog Symposium on 12 February 2006 [archived], co-ordinated by Jonathan Edelstein.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.