Arson in eighteenth-century London (part 2)

If servants and apprentices constitute the largest single group of arson defendants in the Proceedings, the next most prominent group consists of people from the ‘middling sorts’. And in many cases, this represents the use of arson as a weapon or tool – often one wielded in the course of disputes and quarrels with neighbours or business rivals. This included the use of false accusations of arson, and juries may have been particularly concerned about this; acquittal rates seem particularly high in cases that had quarrelling neighbours as their backdrop.

[Part 1]

I’m not going to look in depth at the trials in which arson was allegedly used in insurance scams, since Jonathan Edelstein has quite recently written about this type of trial and in particular the role of the specialist investigator [archived]. These were frequently long and complex trials that might well repay closer attention, but I didn’t have enough time on this occasion to do them justice.

But I do want to mention the chronology of such trials: the earliest mention of an insurance claim, with the apparent implication that it was the defendant’s motive for setting fire to her own property, was in the trial of Elizabeth Calloway in 1735. However, this was no more than an implication, and there is then a gap of 35 years before the next trial in which insurance is mentioned at all, that of James Grieve (who was acquitted on a technicality).

There is then another gap until 1779; but in that year there were three cases, and over the next 15 years (to the last trial in my sample in 1794), this particular theme accounts for approaching half of the trials (and is mentioned in others). This is a development that reflects a number of social and legal changes including the growing use of insurance and early developments in forensic science. But this rapid expansion of such trials at the end of eighteenth century runs counter to Bernard Capp’s suggestion that greater concern for property rights in the 18th century made arson increasingly a crime of the “uncivil poor”.[1]

On the other hand, it is possible that the scenario presented in the trial of Eleanor Claxton in 1729 was becoming less common among the middling sorts during the 18th century. According to her prosecutor Elizabeth Hunt, Eleanor “did frequently get in Liquor, and was very quarrelsome and disturbing”, and Elizabeth had remonstrated with her, “desiring her to be quiet, telling her she could not bear it”. Then, when Elizabeth and other neighbours were trying to put out the fire, Eleanor had refused to help them and had abused and insulted them. Elizabeth said that she had seen Eleanor near where the fire started with a candle, although she had not actually seen her set light to anything. At any rate, the jury found Eleanor not guilty.

When William Grigson prosecuted Henry Tiller for setting fire to his haystack in 1723, he claimed

that he suspected the Prisoner, because he had been informed he said he would do for him. That he is a farmer in the same neighbourhood, and there had been some law suits between them, and that he is forced to carry arms to defend himself from the Prisoner, because he would lye lurking about the fields with pistols to do him a mischief.

And there were indeed witnesses to corroborate this dispute, and “that the Prisoner had threatened to do for Mr. Grigson”. However, there was no direct evidence; none of the witnesses had even seen him “near the place under any suspicious circumstances or unreasonable hours”. Tiller was, again, acquitted.

In 1731, William Edgerley brought two different prosecutions for the burning of his house, and failed to get a conviction on either occasion. At the first trial, of Joel Farrington, it emerges that Edgerley was keeper of a turnpike, to which the house in question was attached. Farrington ran a nearby inn, and had been heard complaining that the turnpike was damaging his business, “but he believed it would not stand long, by what he had heard two Men say”, and “that in a Month or two’s time it would be burnt down”. (And when he saw the house on fire, he commented that “it burned bravely”.) Defence witnesses, however, testified that, firstly, Farrington was “often out of order in his head”, and secondly that he’d been nowhere near the house at the time. One added that he believed that “it was set on Fire in the inside”. Farrington was acquitted.

Edgerley tried again at the next session of the court, with a prosecution against Thomas Frame. This time around, however, Edgerley landed himself in serious trouble. Not only was Frame acquitted, but the jury also decided that the main prosecution witness was a liar – Edgerley’s maidservant, who claimed that Frame had tried to incite her to fire the house and had threatened her – and the judge granted Frame a copy of the indictment, an uncommon judicial action that would enable Frame to sue Edgerley for malicious prosecution.[2]

An apparently malicious prosecution also opens discussion of our final theme, arson in political disturbances. At the end of June 1780, George Simpson was prosecuted for setting fire to the house of Victor Amada de la Tour, Marquis de Cordon (and, apparently, the ‘Sardinian ambassador’ in London), on 2 June. The prosecutor, John Rogers, told the court that

I heard a noise in Duke-street; coming along I saw a fire in the street. I came and stood at the east end of the chapel to look, as other spectators did; I saw several people and the prisoner bringing out books, benches, and the lining of the chapel, and other things, and throwing them upon the fire.

The defendant, Rogers said, “came up to me, laid hold of me by the collar, and said, D – n your eyes, or blast your eyes, where are your colours!”

Unfortunately, Rogers also claimed that he’d never met the defendant before that time, whereas it turned out that he lived in the next door house, and that Rogers had a ‘bad character’ which included making false insurance claims and having “wilfully set his house on fire”. In contrast, witnesses lined up to give Simpson a good character, and there was no other eyewitness to his involvement in the fire. He was acquitted.

Still, he almost certainly had been up to something that night, and not on his own. His master (a carpenter) testified that Simpson had been out on the night of the fire and the following morning told him:

Master I have been to the fire. … I asked what fire? He said, at the Danish ambassador’s; he said, D – n my eyes, master, we have burnt it down, we have had fine fun! and then he said he would go home to bed; he said, if you live two or three days longer you will see half London on fire.

Quite so. The rioting and fire described in the trial certainly happened, whatever Simpson’s actual involvement, and it was part of the warm-up stages of one of the most serious and well-known of London’s many episodes of collective violence: the Gordon Riots, which took place during the first week or so of June 1780.

The main arson/riot trial related to the Gordon Riots – among several trials for the riots which led to a number of executions – was that of Francis Rowley, who “was indicted for that he with divers other persons, unlawfully, maliciously, and feloniously did set fire to the dwelling-house of John Eyles , Esq. against the form of the statute” on 7 June. This typical kind of wording used in indictments obscures the most important fact about the case: the “dwelling-house” of John Eyles was, in fact, the Fleet prison.

The story of the Gordon Riots is well-known, however, and has plenty of good general online coverage (as well as primary sources). It was also unique in the OBP arson records. So I’m not going to go into further detail here: I’ll leave those interested to follow the links.

Still, the Gordon Riots point to another important and rather different context for ‘arson’, if we use a broad social definition rather than a narrow legal one, in the early modern period. Early modern crowds often burnt things, whether they were ‘protesting’ or ‘celebrating’ crowds (or somewhere on the fuzzy boundary between the two). The burning of effigies – from Guy Fawkes to a wide range of unpopular politicians – amounted to a grand tradition in popular culture. Anti-enclosure rioters in the countryside burnt down fences; workers such as weavers might burn machinery and factories that they thought were putting them out of work.

And at various times throughout the eighteenth century, religious rioters burnt down and otherwise attacked places of worship and other buildings associated with their chosen targets. The Gordon Riots were aimed at Catholics; more often, the targets were nonconformist Protestants and their chapels and meeting-houses. Few of these rioters were ever likely to be prosecuted for such acts; at most, a few ‘ringleaders’ would be selected for exemplary punishment.

The diversity and importance of experiences and understandings of arson in early modern Britain only begin to be hinted at in the records of a court such as the Old Bailey, rich though they are. A fuller historical investigation would need to range more widely in both legal and other primary sources. In addition to personal accounts of fires and fears of fires, the records of insurance companies might be a useful source. The records of lower courts such as Quarter Sessions (and of civil litigation) are likely to produce more material. For example, Keith Thomas noted a connection between accusations of witchcraft and of arson. In Wales, witchcraft was rarely prosecuted but ritual cursing seems to have been quite commonly used by those who had a grievance against their neighbours: in 1681, Elizabeth Parry was said to have “fell downe upon her knees and cursed Elizabeth verch Richard and wished that God would send from heaven wild fire to consume the sayd Elizabeth verch Richard and her house and her daughters house”. [3] This was a powerfully frightening curse.

Arson in early modern society had many meanings, but it has yet to be extensively or intensively studied by historians. A detailed study of early modern arson in Britain would be necessarily a study not simply of fires started, but also of threats and of fears, one that could range from neighbourhood quarrels to national political crises and from witches to Papists and vagrants to businessmen. Anyone looking for a PhD topic?


1. Capp, ‘Arson, threats of arson’, pp.212-3. Back
2. See JM Beattie, Crime and the courts in England 1660-1800 (1986), pp. 417-8. Back
3. Thomas, Religion and magic, 634-7; National Library of Wales, Chirk Castle B38/a.12; R. Suggett, ‘Witchcraft dynamics in early modern Wales’, in M. Roberts and S. Clarke (eds), Women and gender in early modern Wales (Cardiff, 2000). Back

This post and Part 1 are a contribution to the Old Bailey Proceedings Blog Symposium [archived] on 12 February 2006, co-ordinated by Jonathan Edelstein..

2 thoughts on “Arson in eighteenth-century London (part 2)”

  1. Pingback: The Head Heeb
  2. Bring the stuff out of the building, then burning it on the street, seems to be the socially-responsiel arsonist’s tactic of choice in the early modern period. It’s a good way of demonstrating your dislike of Catholics/Quakers without risking torching the entire neighbourhood. I seem to recall that it was the way that a highly orderly crowd chose to demolish the Medical School in Sheffield in 1836.

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