Old Bailey, London
Thursday 1 November 1810
Just after 8am on Thursday 1 November 1810, with a jury of 12 Londoners duly sworn, the stage was set for the trial of Andrew Bent and Phillip Street. Lord Ellenborough, the Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales no less – and a notoriously severe judge – entered the scene exuding an aura of power and authority:
As he reached the judgment seat before each trial he would begin to breathe heavily, puffing his cheeks in and out like a boxer approaching the ring: ‘You would suppose he was going to snort like a war-horse preparing for battle’…
[Ellenborough was] the stereotype of a testy, irascible, short-tempered judge; his performances in court were masterpieces of theatrical performance designed to inspire fear in the accused, and an aura of indisputable authority for a jury….His brilliant legal arguments were punctuated with withering sarcasm and fierce outbursts of impassioned rage [Ben Wilson, The Laughter of Triumph, 2005, p. 74].
After a trial which must have sorely tested the judge’s temper, the jury took little time to find both Bent and Street guilty as charged. Facing Lord Ellenborough from the dock, Bent – aged 20 and perhaps less than five feet tall – was left to fill the silence of the packed courtroom after the judge asked:
Do you have anything to say why sentence of death should not be pronounced upon you?
There was nothing more to be said. Bent would have looked on as, with due solemnity, Lord Ellenborough placed a square, black piece of cloth over his wig, with one corner hanging down above his nose (the ‘black cap’). Over the judge’s shoulder, as a backdrop to the ritual, the sword of justice mounted on the wall might have caught Bent’s attention, with its sharp edge now carrying more than symbolic significance.
Addressing Bent directly, Lord Ellenborough recited his well rehearsed formula for pronouncing the death sentence:
Andrew Bent, you will be taken hence to the prison in which you were last confined and from there to a place of execution where you will be hanged by the neck until you are dead and thereafter your body buried within the precincts of the prison and may the Lord have mercy upon your soul.
On cue, stepping forward from behind the judge and bowing his head, the chaplain concluded the ritual by speaking a single word, ‘Amen‘.
around midnight, Saturday 20 October 1810
Andrew Bent’s death sentence followed just 11 days after the burglary for which he was convicted. The location was a shop-house on the corner of Houghton Street and Clare Market. The premises were owned by the Duke of Newcastle but occupied by a widow, Hannah Bickers. She lived there with a lodger, Samuel Solomon. He also conducted a shop – probably as a pawnbroker selling second-hand clothes – with door access on the Houghton Street side. Access to the living quarters was on the Clare Market side, with Solomon living upstairs.
Horwood Map, 1799 – depicting the scene of the crime, at the corner of Clare Market and Houghton Street (probably no. 13); noting the proximity of Lincoln’s Inn Fields (top right) and Drury Lane (bottom left)
At about 2.45am on Sunday, 21 October 1810, a night watchman noticed a broken padlock on the outside of the shop door. Another lock inside the door was also forced. The watchman called out to the occupants and Solomon came downstairs. He told the watchman he last padlocked the door when closing shop at 4pm the previous Friday. He had noticed the lock intact just a few hours earlier, about 10pm. After inspecting the forced entry, Solomon noticed he was missing two pairs of boots and a pair of shoes. Constable Salmon of the nearby ‘Bow Street Runners‘ was called to examine the scene.
9am, Sunday 21 October 1810
About 8am that morning, Andrew Bent and Phillip Street came into the Sugar Loaf public house in King Street, off Drury Lane. The publican, John White, knew Bent ‘very well’. Bent and Street ordered breakfast for 9am. One of the two was carrying a bundle which was spread out on a table in the taproom, before the various items were offered for sale around the room. Someone must have left the pub soon after to report this suspicious activity to the Bow Street Runners, just a couple of blocks away. While he was busy at the bar, the publican asked his wife to give them 6 shillings for two pairs of boots and a pair of shoes. Bent and Street split this 3 shillings each.
Responding to the tip-off, Constables Salmon and Adkins went to the Sugar Loaf just before 9am. By this time, Bent and Street were sitting by themselves in the taproom, perhaps still waiting for breakfast. The other patrons must have scattered, perhaps having some better awareness of the departing spy in their midst. Solomon, the shop owner, also came to the pub soon after to see if the suspicious goods might be his. Constable Salmon asked the publican if he had bought any property that morning. He confirmed buying the boots (which he later said were ‘old’) and shoes (described as regimental shoes) and handed them over. When asked by the constable to give back the money, the younger Street handed over his 3 shillings, before turning to ask Bent (presumably cringing) if he had done the same. Bent sat unmoved and silent. Solomon confirmed the boots and shoes were his. Bent and Street were then arrested.
Horwood Map, 1799 – depicting the place of apprehension in King Street (top left), off Drury Lane; note Bow Street (bottom left), where charges were laid at the Magistrates’ Court
Monday 22 October 1810
The next day, Monday, 22 October 1810, Bent and Street were charged at the Bow Street Magistrates’ Court. Solomon, the victim and prosecutor, appears highly motivated in ‘throwing the book’ at them rather than ‘going easy’ – as it was open to him to do. This was the fourth time within three years the premises had been broken into. Bent and Street were ‘two well known characters’ – presumably for their criminal connections. Mr Read Esq. committed Bent and Street to Newgate prison before standing trial for burglary and theft at the upcoming sessions of the Old Bailey.
Specifically, Bent and Street were indicted for:
burglariously breaking and entering the dwelling house of Hannah Bickers, widow, about the hour of twelve at night, on the 20th of October, and burglariously stealing therein a coat, value 2 s. a tippet, value 6 d. two pair of boots, value, 15 s. and two shoes, value 5 s. the property of Samuel Solomon.
‘Two well-known characters…’
Burglary was a felony carrying a death sentence. For centuries, this was recognised as an especially heinous crime, as Blackstone in his Commentaries on the Laws of England explains:
Burglary, or nocturnal house-breaking…has always been looked upon as a very heinous offence: not only because of the abundant terror that it naturally carries with it, but also as it is a forcible invasion and disturbance of that right of habitation which every individual might acquire even in a state of nature…
And the law of England has so particular and tender a regard to the immunity of a man’s house, that it styles it his castle, and will never suffer it to be violated with impunity…[vol 4, ch 16, p. 165].
The value attributed to the goods said to be ‘burglariously’ stolen by Bent and Street was 22 shillings, 6 pence [about AUD $90.00 in 2018], comprising:
- one coat, 2 shillings – now about AUD $8.00 ;
- one tippet (or scarf), 6 pence – about AUD $2.00;
- two pairs of boots, 15 shillings – about AUD $30.00 per pair;
- one pair of shoes, 5 shillings – about AUD $20.00.
As mentioned above, the publican bought for 6 shillings the two pairs of boots and pair of shoes valued at 20 shillings.
Thursday 01 November 1810
Bent and Street represented themselves at the Old Bailey trial, without legal assistance. They would have heard the full terms of the indictment for the first time when this was read to the court as the trial began. They were not told in advance which witnesses would be called to give evidence against them. As noted at the Old Bailey website (Trial Procedures), defendants ‘had to respond spontaneously to what the witnesses said. This was thought to be the best way of ascertaining the truth‘.
Samuel Solomon was the first to give evidence. He attested that the shop door was broken into and entered at night, some time between 10pm and 2.45am. He further said that he immediately missed two pairs of boots and a pair of shoes last seen in his shop the previous Friday. When counsel pressed about whether he missed anything else, Solomon said unhelpfully, ‘that I do not know’, before stating generally that he had identified his missing goods at the committal hearing. When later pressed again, Solomon even more unhelpfully said, ‘Yes, I think I missed more shoes’ – something not mentioned in the indictment. The examination ended quickly. Accordingly, Solomon gave no direct evidence that the coat and tippet were stolen.
John White, the publican who knew Bent ‘very well’ as a regular, was the next prosecution witness. He needed to tread a fine line, having purchased the stolen goods. After giving his account of Bent and Street in the taproom, Crown counsel took a firm line:
Q. You ought to be scrupulous of buying without asking them how they came by them – A. I had no idea of their coming by them dishonestly.
Q. Why if they had bought them they could not sell them for six shillings – A. No, but I did not know but some gentleman gave them to them, I was busy, I told my wife to give six shillings for them, and she took them up stairs.
Bent asked White a question in cross-examination which suggested that it was Street, not Bent, who had offered the goods for sale – but White could not recall. Then, unhelpfully for Bent, White continued, sharing with the Court his belief that, beyond the items he bought, the accused were also offering for sale in the taproom ‘two old coats and some more shoes’.
Constables Adkins and Salmon were then called to give their accounts.
John Barfield gave evidence to the effect that Bent and Street tried unsuccessfully to sell ‘the goods’ at his master’s shop. His master was in the business of ‘translating old shoes’. This occurred about 7.30am on the Sunday morning, soon before they were seen in the Sugar Loaf.
Speaking in his own defence, Bent told the court:
On Sunday morning I bought the boots and shoes of two men and a woman, at the corner of Coal-yard in Drury-lane, I gave them a crown [= 5 shillings] for them, they asked me six shillings, and took a crown; the other prisoner came up to me and asked me what I was buying, I told him, he said he would go my halves, and he gave me half-a-crown.
If believed, then on this account Bent was no more culpable than the publican – making a 1 shilling profit on re-sale, split equally with Street – perhaps paying for their breakfast.
Could Bent have been telling the truth? It was not uncommon for stolen goods to pass rapidly through many sets of hands, with a small profit at each step as the goods became more distanced from the illegal source. The dilemma Bent might have faced was that, to save himself, he would have to name the ‘two men and a woman’ – and ‘dobbing’ would breach the code of honour of the London underworld. The publican might have faced the same dilemma had Bent and Street left the Sugar Loaf before the constables arrived.
By modern legal standards, it is a long stretch to place Bent’s hands breaking open the padlock to the shop door around midnight just because the stolen goods were found in his possession about 8am the next morning. But the ‘presumption of innocence’ was far less robust in the early 1800s. In practice, and in the absence of fingerprint technology, the law presumed guilt in these circumstances. By the standards of the day, it was a lame excuse to say that one did not steal the stolen goods found in one’s hands but, rather, had bought them from strangers in the street. Notoriously, the Drury Lane precinct was one of the dodgiest parts of London. Anyone dealing with strangers knowingly took on the risks and consequences.
When called to give his defence, Street said only that he was coming down Drury Lane when the things described by Bent occurred.
Lord Ellenborough then proceeded to sum up the case for the jury before inviting their verdict. Perhaps prompted by a friend in court as the trial was about to end, Street seems to have blurted out:
It is not a dwelling-house that was broken open, and there is a witness in court can prove it not to be a dwelling-house.
One can readily imagine Lord Ellenborough fuming, even exploding, at this disruption to regular procedure. Street had been given a fair opportunity to state his defence. Evidence was concluded. Following due process and in proper sequence, the judge had summed up for the jury the state of the law and evidence. Now, with the trial reaching the point of verdict, an impertinent accused wanted to unroll the sequence, re-state his defence and have more witnesses called. The reporter from the Morning Chronicle gives a more complete account than the official trial transcript as to what followed:
After Lord Ellenborough had addressed the Jury, the prisoner Street, a young man sixteen years of age, indicated to his Lordship more than once, that there were persons in Court who could prove, that the place broken into was not the dwelling house of Sarah [sic] Bickers. His Lordship, at first, cautioned the young man how he insisted on such a statement, lest he should prove that he knew more than he might be supposed to do of the premises where the burglary had been committed. The Prisoner, however, still persevering in his averment, witness were called on this point …
Putting the untimely nature of the intervention aside, this was a fair point. Burglary applied to dwelling houses, with occupants necessarily inside at the time of the breaking and entering. Burglary did not apply to shops. Solomon’s evidence placed the stolen goods in the shop, not the living quarters. It was the shop door in Houghton Street that was forced, not the separate access to the living quarters on the Clare Market side.
Perhaps with some weariness in the wake of whatever judicial eruption might have occurred, Crown counsel recalled Solomon to give evidence that both he and Hannah Bickers slept in the house. Constable Salmon was also recalled to give evidence of the layout before concluding, ‘it is all one house’. According to Blackstone, this point should have turned on the lease arrangements as between owner, occupier and lodger for the different parts. But no such evidence was produced by the prosecutor. There is no record of any second summing up by the judge.
Street continued to occupy the court’s time by calling character witnesses – no less than seven. For whatever reason, Bent did not trouble the court in this regard. The magnitude of the disaster befalling him was all too apparent.
The atmosphere must have been heavy with Lord Ellenborough’s disapproval for the two accused and the disrupted process. The jury were quick to pronounce both Bent and Street guilty as charged. When asked by the judge, neither could find any reason as to why they should not suffer death. And so death was duly pronounced.
The words ‘that went well’ probably did not pass between Bent and Street – unless with heavy irony – as they were taken down to the Newgate cells preserved for condemned prisoners, known in Cockney slang as ‘the salt-boxes’. Another 24 condemned prisoners would join them from the October sessions of the Old Bailey. All would have hoped for a royal reprieve, but not all could expect one.
Despite his failure to produce any character witnesses at court, the absence of any prior convictions would have counted in Bent’s favour (at least none have so far been found). Court records noted Bent as ‘a boy [apprentice] belonging to Mr Crowder’ – the editor and publisher of the Public Ledger newspaper, with the printing office located just behind the Old Bailey. In pronouncing the death sentence, Lord Ellenborough would have looked for signs of repentance and remorse.
Three weeks was the average time passing between hearing a death sentence and then of any reprieve. For Bent and Street, this passage of time came and went. Each extra passing day must have weighed even more heavily. For both, living on death-row was something to which they would have to become accustomed – for over four months.
Princess Amelia, a favourite child of King George III, died of tuberculosis on 2 November 1810 – the day after Bent’s trial. This is said to have triggered another bout of insanity for ‘Mad King George’ which, combined with his other illnesses, rendered him unfit for kingship. The timing could not have been worse for Bent and Street – lingering on death-row, confined to their ‘salt-boxes’ and praying for royal mercy. The King was in no fit state to give it. His eldest son and heir was appointed Prince Regent on 5 February 1811. On 21 February 1811, the Recorder of London, Sir John Silvester, visited the Prince Regent at Carlton House and obtained royal reprieves for Bent, Street and 20 other condemned prisoners.
Bent might have learned of his reprieve from a visitor carrying a news report from the Morning Post of 22 February 1811, which preceded by some weeks the official warrant to the Newgate gaolers dated 11 March 1811.
The report named four of the 26 condemned prisoners from the October sessions to be hanged the following Wednesday (neither Bent nor Street were named) – with the other 22 receiving royal mercy. By warrant issued by the Prince Regent, the death sentences of Bent and Street were commuted to transportation for life ‘to the coast of New South Wales or some one or other of the islands adjacent…in consideration of some favorable circumstances humbly represented unto us in their behalf’.
On 3 September 1811, Bent set sail from London bound for New South Wales on the convict transport, Guildford. Street remained in Newgate. On 1 November 1811, exactly one year after his trial, and thanks to the petitioning by his more respectable connections, Street was granted his unconditional freedom – just as Bent, in chains, was touching in at Rio de Janeiro.
Within five years, fortune’s wheel would take a turn. On 14 June 1816, after further convictions for burglary, Phillip Street was hanged before the Debtor’s door of the Old Bailey in front of a large London crowd (read more). That same month, on the far side of the world, Bent began publishing the Hobart Town Gazette – the first permanent newspaper for the colony of Van Diemen’s Land. And, in years to come, Bent would become the father of the free press in the Australian colonies.