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…the highwayman in the dark was a City tradesman in the light, and being recognized and challenged by his fellow-tradesman whom he stopped in his character of ‘the Captain,’ gallantly shot him through the head and rode away….

As Sanders notes in his Companion to A Tale of Two Cities, Dickens gets this story slightly wrong (32). The account in the Annual Register of 1775 describes the events of January 4, 1775 as follows:

Mr. Brower, a print-cutter, near Aldersgate-Street, was attacked on the road to Enfield by a single highwayman, whom he recollected to be a tradesman in the city; he accordingly called him by his name, when the robber shot himself through the head. (82)

The part of London called “the City” is the commercial center of the metropolis. Baedeker’s handbook to London and Its Environs (1908) describes this region as follows: “The CITY and the EAST END, consisting of that part of London which lies to the E[ast] of the Temple, form the commercial and money-making quarter of the Metropolis. It embraces the Port, the Docks, the Custom House, the Bank, the Exchange, … and the Cathedral of St. Paul’s, towering over them all…. On the W[est] verge of the City are Chancery Lane and the Inns of Court, the headquarters of barristers, solicitors and law-stationers” (xxix).

The area described is visible on this portion of Thornton’s map of London (1784). Chancery Lane is just above Temple Bar at the left side of the map; the Thames (with Docks and Ports) is at the bottom; the Bank and the Exchange are marked (but not labeled) to the left of Threadneedle Street and above Cornhill (the crease in the map runs through them); and St. Paul’s is near the middle.

Click on map for larger view

“The Captain” was apparently a stock name or frequent pseudonym for highwaymen, especially in the 18th century (Sanders 32).

…the mail was waylaid by seven robbers, and the guard shot three dead, and then got shot dead himself by the other four, ‘in consequence of the failure of his ammunition’: after which the mail was robbed in peace…

Dickens is here glossing the events of December 5, 1775, as recorded in the Annual Register of that year. The notice in the Annual Register reports the story as follows:

The Norwich stage was this morning attacked, in Epping forest, by seven highwaymen, three of whom were shot dead by the guard; but his ammunition failing, he was shot dead himself, and the coach robbed by the survivors.

Though Dickens identifies the coach attacked by highwaymen as “the mail,” the incident (in 1775) precedes the advent of mail-coaches in England (the first of which began to transport mail in 1784 [Harper 40]). The vehicle attacked was actually the “Norwich stage” – a stagecoach on the Norwich road.  (Stage-coaches were conveyances traveling in “stages,” which the OED defines as “division[s] of a journey or process,” or “[a]s much of a journey as is performed without stopping for rest, a change of horses, etc.; each of the several portions into which a road is divided for coaching or posting purposes; the distance traveled between two places of rest on a road.”)

…the Lord Mayor of London, was made to stand and deliver on Turnham Green, by one highwayman, who despoiled the illustrious creature in sight of all his retinue…

Here, Dickens mistakes events of 1776 for those of 1775 (Sanders 32). The Annual Register of 1776 records that on September 6,

The lord-mayor of London was robbed near Turnham-Green, in his chaise and four, in sight of all his retinue, by a single highwayman, who swore he would shoot the first man that made resistance, or offered violence. (177)

The Lord Mayor of London is the mayor of the capital city, though distinct from the Mayor of London, an elected politician; the title “Lord Mayor” was originally reserved for the mayors only of London, York, and Dublin, but has since been extended to the mayors of other metropolises, such as Liverpool, Birmingham, Sheffield, etc. (OED). The first Lord Mayor was appointed in 1189; in 1775, the Lord Mayor was John Sawbridge; and in 1776, Sir Thomas Hallifax (Lord Mayor of London, Wikipedia). The appointment of the Lord Mayor is still attended with considerable pomp: On the Lord Mayor’s Day, November 9, the Lord Mayor goes in procession from London to Westminster, where he receives the assent of the monarch to his appointment (OED).

Turnham Green, to which the London Underground may now be taken, is in Chiswick, west of London.

…prisoners in London goals fought battles with their turnkeys, and the majesty of the law fired blunderbusses in among them, loaded with rounds of shot and ball…

Dickens is referring here to the events of March 14, 1775, recorded in the Annual Register as follows:

Robert Rous, one of the turnkeys of the New Gaol, Southwark, seeing a prisoner, who was committed there for different highway robberies, with rags tied round his fetters, ordered him to take them off; and, on his refusing to do it, he immediately cut them off; when, finding both his irons sawed through, he [the turnkey] secured him [the prisoner], and then sent up two of his assistants to overlook a great number of prisoners who were in the strong room. Upon this the prisoners immediately secured one of the assistants in the room, and all fell on him with their irons, which they had knocked off. Rous hearing of it, went up with a horse-pistol, and extricated his fellow turnkey from their fury, and then locked the door. All the turnkeys, as well as constables, now surrounded the door and the yard; and the prisoners fired several pistols loaded with powder and ball at two of the constables; when, the balls going through their hats, and the outrages continuing, one of the constables, who had a blunderbuss loaded with shot, fired through the iron grates at the window, and dangerously wounded one fellow committed for a burglary in the Mint. At length a party of soldiers, which had been sent for to the Tower [of London], being arrived, and having loaded their muskets, the room was opened, and the prisoners were all secured and yoked, and 21 of them chained down to the floor in the condemned room. Some of the people belonging to the prison were wounded. (98)

“Blunderbusses” are a kind of gun, described in Fairholt’s Costume in England, A History of Dress (1860) as “Short hand-guns of wide bore.” The odd name, “blunderbuss,” attracts attention, and Fairholt quotes a 17th-century opinion that “I do believe the word is corrupted; for I guess it is a German term, and should be donderbucks, and that is ‘thundering guns,’ donder signifying thunder, and bucks a gun” (370). The OED gives a similar, but more elaborate etymology: Describing “blunderbuss” as an adaptation of the Dutch word “donderbus” (“donder” meaning “thunder” and “bus” meaning gun or, originally, box or tube), the OED suggests that “donder” was “perverted in form” to blunder, perhaps intentionally as “some allusion to its blind or random firing.” The OED’s definition of blunderbuss is “[a] short gun with a large bore, firing many balls or slugs, and capable of doing execution within a limited range without exact aim (now superseded, in civilized countries, by other fire-arms).” Date charts and examples of the use of the word “blunderbuss” suggest that this kind of gun was most frequently in use between the 17th and mid-19th centuries.

“Shot and ball” refers to the ammunition with which blunderbusses were loaded. According to the OED, “shot” and “ball,” in their association with firearms, originally referred to the missiles appropriate to various kinds of large, early weaponry. “Ball” originally referred to the projectile missiles of catapults and crossbows, and later of cannons, muskets, etc; “shot” was usually associated with cannon or other artillery in which these projectiles were propelled “by force of an explosion.” In later usage, shot and ball both came to refer to the smaller discharges of hand-held guns.

…thieves snipped off diamond crosses from the necks of noble lords at Court drawing-rooms; musketeers went into St. Giles’s, to search for contraband goods, and the mob fired on the musketeers, and the musketeers fired on the mob…

According to the Annual Register, on June 22, 1775,

Being the day appointed for keeping the anniversary of his Majesty’s birth-day, who entered into the 38th year of his age on the 4th instant, it was celebrated with the usual joy and splendour. Lord Stormonth’s St. Andrew’s cross, set round with diamonds, and appended to his ribbon of the order of the Thistle, was cut from it, at court, by some sharpers, who made off with it undiscovered. It was worth several hundred pounds. (132)

And on September 27, 1775,

In consequence of an information given of a considerable quantity of contraband goods being lodged at a house in Buckridge-street, St. Giles’s, Mr. Phillips, a Custom-house officer, attended by a number of peace-officers, and a file of musqueteers from the Savoy, went in search of the goods; and, in one room where they got entrance, they found a bag and eight pounds of tea, which were lodged in the Custom-house. Immediately after the officers and guards had left the house, and got into the street, they were fired at several times from the mob, and pelted with brick-bats, &c. but no person received the least hurt from this outrage but Mr. Phillips, who had his nose cut by a piece of glass bottle. Not content with this, the mob followed them; and, after pelting, fired at them; on which the guard returned, and discharged their musquets among the mob, when some, it is said, were killed and wounded. One of the ringleaders of the gang was taken before the magistrates of Litchfield-street, who committed him to Newgate. (163)

In this and other entries in the Annual Register, a “mob” appears to materialize out of nowhere, suggesting that chaos threatened, at any moment, to break out in the London streets. In fact, mobs were somewhat frequent in 18th-century London, but were usually motivated by some kind of social or political protest (Johnson 31-2).

In the midst of them, the hangman … was in constant requisition; now, stringing up long rows of miscellaneous criminals; now, hanging a housebreaker on Saturday who had been taken on Tuesday; now, burning people in the hand at Newgate by the dozen, and now burning pamphlets at the door of Westminster Hall; today, taking the life of an atrocious murderer, and to-morrow of a wretched pilferer who had robbed a farmer’s boy of sixpence.

According to entries in the Annual Register of 1775, the London executioner was indeed responsible for the various punishments enumerated here – hanging housebreakers, burning thieves in the hand, and burning pamphlets outside Westminster Hall. An account of January and February 1775 describes a series of punishments handed down at the sessions in which criminal trials were heard, including the sentence of a thief of a farmer’s boy’s sixpence:

The sessions were ended at the Old Bailey; when the court passed sentence of death on eight convicts; sentence of transportation for seven years, on forty-three; and for 14 years, on three more. Three were ordered to be branded in the hand, and four to be privately whipt. And on the 15th of February, four of the capital convicts were executed at Tyburn. The fifth was pardoned on condition of transport for his natural life. One of those who suffered was for robbing a farmer’s boy of six-pence. (83)

The duty of burning pamphlets outside Westminster Hall also devolved upon the hangman, apparently as a way of performing, publicly, the condemnation of seditious tracts. The Annual Register of 1775 describes this process in application to pamphlets defending the cause of the American colonies against England:

Lord Effingham complained in the House of Lords of the licentiousness of the press, and produced a pamphlet entitled, “The Present Crisis with Respect to America Considered,” published by T. Becket, which his Lordship declared to be a most daring insult on the king: and moved, that the house would come to resolutions to the following effect:
That the said pamphlet is a false, malicious, and dangerous libel…. That one of the said pamphlets be burnt by the hands of the common hangman in Old Palace-yard; and another, at the Royal Exchange.
That these resolutions be communicated to the House of Commons at a conference, and that the concurrence of that house be desired. Which resolutions being read, were unanimously agreed to…. A second conference now ensued, arising from a complaint of the Earl of Radnor in the Upper House, and of Lord Chewton in the Lower House, against a periodical paper, called The Crisis, No. 3 published for T. Shaw, &c. In the Lower House, the paper in question had been voted a false, malicious, and seditious libel; in the Upper House, the word treasonable was added; but, upon re-considering the matter, that was omitted: but it was, like the other, unanimously ordered to be burned by the hands of the common hangman…. In obedience to the above orders, these pieces were burnt, on the 6th of March following, by the common hangman, at Westminster-hall gate. (94-5)

Westminster Hall is an old building – erected in 1397 under Richard II – which still stands. It is located across from Westminster Abbey, on the side of the houses of Parliament facing away from the Thames (the houses of Parliament are much newer, having been rebuilt in the 19th century).  It was used as a royal banqueting and coronation hall (a wedding banquet was given there for George III and his queen on September 22, 1761 [Gaspey 137]), and peers accused of treason were frequently tried there (e.g. Guy Fawkes [Woodley 192]). In the 18th century, Westminster Hall contained the courts of Chancery, King’s-bench, and Common Pleas (Harrison 517-8); it is now devoted to no specific purpose, but is sometimes used for state occasions (Woodley 192).

Thornton’s New, Complete, and Universal History, Description, and Survey of … London (1784) furnishes us with an illustration of Westminster Hall as it appeared in the late 18th century.

Old-Palace Yard (identified by the Annual Register as one of the locations in which the “common hangman” was to burn seditious pamphlets) was the site of the original Westminster Hall, a banqueting-house constructed by William Rufus, which Richard II replaced with the Hall that still stands.



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