Pages vii-xxv

Prisoners' Letters to the Bank of England, 1781-1827. Originally published by London Record Society, London, 2007.

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In this section


Mary England, and her husband James, were arrested in London in January 1814 when uttering (circulating) forged Bank of England notes. This was an offence which carried the death penalty. The Bank decided not to prosecute James, who promptly abandoned Mary and their four children and went to sea. Mary accepted an arrangement offered by the Bank; to avoid the possibility of being executed if found guilty, she would plead guilty to possessing the notes rather than uttering them and be transported for fourteen years. Her trial took place at the Old Bailey in February 1814. She was then taken to the grim and insalubrious prison of Newgate, her four young children in tow, there to wait for a ship to be made ready to convey convicts to New South Wales. She was destitute. By April, she had pawned her clothes, her children's clothes and any small belongings she had. This little family was attempting to exist on the gaol allowance of bread and water, supplemented by what could be bought with the money from the pledged items. They were to remain in Newgate for nine dreadful months. At the end of November, they all boarded the Northampton at Deptford, sailing in January 1815. Behind this tale of misery lies another story of extraordinary benevolence. The benevolent party was none other than the Bank of England, the institution which had ensured their distress. On receiving a letter from Mary in April 1814, pleading her destitution, the Bank's solicitors arranged to pay her the considerable sum of 10s. 6d. a week until she left Newgate for Deptford. On receipt of a further letter from her on board the ship, they sent her £10 for the family's needs for their voyage (163, 189).

Her letters, and several hundred more, written by or on behalf of prisoners like her, are transcribed in this volume. They were written from gaols all over Britain, though mainly from London; from hulks lying in rivers and off-shore; or from ships about to depart on their long voyage to New South Wales. The recipients of the letters were the firm of Freshfields, solicitors to the Bank of England; a few were addressed to individual directors or staff of the Bank, or to friends who passed them to Freshfields. The letters, and other pieces dealing with legal matters, were later archived under the title 'Prison Correspondence', and have been kept ever since in the Bank of England archive, attracting only passing attention.

The heterogeneous and private nature of this collection of letters raises questions about the relationship between a powerful financial institution and 'its' prisoners, mostly poor and fairly ignorant, in extremes of difficulty and suffering. The relationship could produce significant acts of charity in response to abject pleading, which made all the difference to lives, mainly female lives, which had descended into squalor, fear and misery. Prisoners cajoled and manipulated the institution, provoking varying responses, sometimes cold, arrogant and distant, sometimes compassionate and kind to a profligate degree.

Pleas from many more of 'the Bank's prisoners' did not achieve the same degree of success as did Mary England. Women without children might be ignored, along with prisoners who continued their forged note trafficking in gaol, or who had refused to plead guilty to a non-capital offence in court when offered this option by the prosecutor, much vaunted as an act of mercy. Male prisoners' letters could be brushed aside unless they gave information leading to successful prosecution of others involved in forged note crime. The Bank of England and their solicitors responded with care, and with a rationale which fitted well their determined policy of ridding the nation of people engaged in the evil practice of currency forgery, a policy carried out professionally, doggedly and at great financial cost. (fn. 1) This collection of letters, revealing an often more compassionate underside to the Bank's single-minded and merciless activity allows an intriguing and important view of institutional charity.

The historical and legal context

The letters transcribed in this volume were written during the period known as the 'restriction' when the British government suspended the convertibility of cash (gold) payments. War with France, started in 1793, continued almost uninterrupted until 1815. Early in 1797, the British government became alarmed at the unprecedented levels of gold withdrawals from the Bank, fuelled by rumours of a French invasion. On 26 February, an order in council was issued to the Bank governor and directors prohibiting payments in gold. The order was regularized by legislation in May 1797, and renewed at intervals by further acts of parliament. This state of affairs lasted until 1821. (fn. 2)

At the same time as withholding gold payments, the Bank were encouraged to maintain currency circulation by various means, (fn. 3) particularly through the issue of large quantities of paper money notes. For the first time, notes of £1 and £2 value were put into circulation. (fn. 4) The new notes were of poor quality and easy to forge, copy or alter. Soon, skilled forgers were at work. Using a large and complex network of dealers, they created a surge of forged paper money in circulation and, with it, public and institutional panic. The forgers used poorer, often ill-educated and illiterate people in their selling and uttering enterprises, many of whom handled paper money for the first time. Well-developed networks were set up by those who also dealt in counterfeit coin, mainly around Birmingham and in some Lancashire towns, to circulate forged notes. Within weeks of the suspension of cash payments coming into effect, the Bank found huge numbers of forged notes being returned to their cashiers by victims of utterers.

While forgery had been an ever-present challenge to the Bank's business, the extent of the threat, which gathered momentum from 1797, was unprecedented. Against it, the Bank mounted what has been described as the most extensive criminal operation of its day. (fn. 5) It is important, when considering the letters in this volume and the responses to them, to recognize the extent of this vigorous nationwide campaign of prosecution – its enormous financial cost, and the involvement of a wide range of existing law enforcement personnel, investigators and lawyers. The Bank may never have totally mastered the forgery epidemic, but they succeeded in keeping the lid on its worst effects. Local and national government lent them co-operation, but the Bank acted independently as a private prosecutor, endowed with vast financial and personnel resources. Between 1797 and 1821 (and beyond, as the impetus for vigorous prosecution outlasted the period of 'restriction'), the Bank, through the assiduous and singleminded work of its solicitors, Freshfields, prosecuted more than 2,000 people nation-wide for forged paper money offences. (fn. 6)

Forgery or fraudulent alteration of Bank of England notes had been a capital offence since 1697. In 1725, uttering ('offering, disposing of or putting away') of such a note was added to the list of capital crimes. (fn. 7) In 1800, the likelihood of a fatal outcome for a defendant prosecuted by the Bank was much higher than for any other property offence. This was a fair reflection of the public fear of forgery, but at the same time it provoked horror and distaste. Further concern related to the comparative ease with which utterers of forged notes, the petty criminals, could be brought to justice and sentenced, rather than the major forgers behind them. Criticism, sometimes virulent, was directed at the Bank for this state of affairs. Their effectiveness and the apparent mercilessness of their prosecution strategy was attacked. By 1801, the directors of the Bank realized that the emergency measure of suspension of cash payments was likely to continue for the foreseeable future, and that a new weapon was needed to manage the situation without sending an 'intolerable' number of men and women to the gallows. It was the Bank solicitors who carefully drafted a bill, which was presented to parliament and became law in May 1801. This permitted prosecution for a 'lesser' offence, punishable by fourteen years' transportation, and became the most frequently used device in the war against forgery. It created a new offence of possession of instruments for making Bank note paper, or of possessing forged notes knowing them to be forged. (fn. 8)

Successful use of this new weapon required the Bank to offer to a defendant apprehended for uttering forged notes the opportunity of a 'plea bargain'. If he or she would plead guilty to a charge of possession, with a certain punishment of fourteen years' transportation, the Bank would not put the capital charge for uttering. It was an offer that most defendants could not refuse. (fn. 9) Many of the prisoners who wrote letters begged for this deal or gave thanks for being allowed it. This way of proceeding brought further criticism of the Bank. They were seen to be arrogantly manipulating the justice system and usurping the prerogative of the judges. However, the criticism was insufficient to deter the Bank and their solicitors from a strategy which successfully held capital sentencing at a 'tolerable' level.

The use of such prosecution procedures necessitated careful handling. In 1802, the Bank set up a Committee for Law Suits. It consisted of the governor or deputy governor of the Bank, five other directors and a secretary, and with a Freshfields solicitor in attendance to present documents and lead the deliberations. Most of the business of this committee was concerned with forged Bank note activities, but also, to a lesser extent, with matters such as Bank coin counterfeiting and other financial legal matters. Meticulous minutes of high quality were kept. They provide evidence of the size, cost and success of the prosecution enterprise, of the networks of policing and the use of lawyers dispersed throughout the country. (fn. 10)

In committee, depositions from magistrates' courts were read, decisions taken about whether to prosecute or not and whether a plea-bargain would be offered. Where there was to be no prosecution, reasons were given. Instructions to solicitors and senior police officers around the country were agreed. The minutes give further evidence about how many of the letters and petitions were to be dealt with. They recorded receipt of a letter or petition and whether the request made was to be granted or not, or the information offered by the writer to be followed-up. In this volume, information is given at the end of letters which were discussed in the committee as to the decisions made. However, many letters were not recorded as having been read in committee. It is much more likely that Freshfields made their own decisions to ignore them or to reply to them themselves, rather than that the committee secretary failed to record them. (fn. 11)

Old Bailey Bank note forgery trials between 1804 and 1834 produced 126 death sentences and 565 sentences of transportation. At this time, most death sentences for property crimes were not carried out, many convicts being respited to other punishments. (fn. 12) The vast majority of the sentences of transportation were carried out. (fn. 13) There are letters in this volume from sixteen prisoners awaiting execution. Most of the others are from those waiting to be transported. The wait for transportation could be long, particularly for women, and the condition of prisoners deteriorated in the grim gaols in which they were held for many months, and on the hulks where men were subjected to corporal punishment and hard labour.

The 'Prison Correspondence' archive

The archive (F25) is held at the Bank of England. It is part of a section of the Bank archives containing papers relating to work handled for the Bank by their solicitors, Freshfields. (fn. 14) F25 contains 1,167 separate documents placed in thirteen sub-groups. The majority of these documents are letters or petitions written by, or on behalf of, prisoners involved in forged Bank note activities. A few of these prisoners were being held for examination, some of whom were asking to be allowed to plead guilty to the lesser offence of possession. Rather more were being held after trial; a few in gaols awaiting their death sentences to be carried out; the rest awaiting transportation in gaols or on hulks; or on the transport ships as they made ready to leave British ports. Other pieces in F25 include copies of replies to these letters by Freshfields; letters to Freshfields from prisoners who were Bank debtors and bankrupts and other imprisoned felons seeking to give information about forgery activities; lists of prisoners to be arraigned or moved for transportation; and correspondence between Freshfields and the home office about particular prisoners.

The letters from prisoners vary slightly in form, but the majority adopted a standard letter-writing form of the time. (fn. 15) The letter sheets, varying in size, were folded several times to form a type of envelope; the text was on the inside and, on the outside, on what was in effect the front, was written the addressee's details. The open edges at the back were often sealed with wax. The recipient frequently noted on this part of the sheet the date of receipt of the letter (usually the same day if the letter came from another part of London) and the name of the sender. Sometimes the action to be taken would also be briefly noted there.

At least half the letters were committed by their writers to the postal service. The fronts bear post marks; for instance, 'Two penny post unpaid Newgate St. Jy 2 2 o'clock 1804 AN', or 'Newgate St. 2py. P. paid 10 o'clock F. Noon'. Other postal locations in London, where it is possible to decipher them, include 'Holborn Hill', 'Long Acre', 'Shoreditch', or further afield, 'Woolwich E.O.', and 'Gravesend 22'. Letters which did not bear post marks would have been delivered to Freshfields' offices by hand. This method was adopted if an immediate reply to the bearer was required. Two women writers apologized for sending letters by post, since, they said, they lacked friends to deliver them (309, 423).

The letters are in good condition, suffering only slight damage, presumably when handled originally in the early nineteenth-century. Until recent cleaning and repair, they were somewhat dirty and slightly blackened with age. Some were slightly torn from the resistance of the wax sealing when they were opened, and holes appear in the paper for the same reason. The paper quality is good. All are written in black ink which has not faded. The entire contents of F25 were microfilmed some time prior to cleaning. It was from the films and copies taken from them that transcription for this volume was ordinarily done. It was then possible to check all the transcriptions from the newly cleaned and repaired originals, which had been rereferenced (whilst retaining the order of the original grouping of the documents) in the Bank archives and mounted in several book volumes at the Bank. Prior to cleaning, the pieces – letter, response, and other pieces relating to the particular prisoner who had written – had been folded together in a small bundle under one reference number. They have now been separated and each piece given its own number. In this volume, the relationship found in the earlier bundles has been preserved, indicating which documents were 'attached' to the original letter. When the letters were originally bundled into their thirteen groups, only a rough chronological order was observed; there appears to have been little method in the filing system, other than to scoop up a bundle of papers dating from a handful of years and put them away. The first nine groups were marked, some time ago, as having come from London prisons (including hulks in the Thames), the remaining four from prisons outside London. However, this is not strictly the case, each being likely to contain some letters from anywhere in Britain.

The layout of individual letters is relatively standard. The place and date of writing are written either at the top right hand of the (first) text page or at the bottom left hand; sometimes one or both of these pieces of information is missing. The salutation is set at the left hand margin, varying in form, but formal in type, such as: 'Hon. Gentlemen', or 'Hond Sirs'. Valedictions vary in placement, left, right or centred, and are often complex in the polite custom of the day, such as: 'I am, Gentlemen, with profound respect, your very humble servant', or 'We beg leave to subscribe ourselves, Sir, your most humble servants and prisoners', or 'And as in duty bound will ever pray'.

Apart from these standard formalities, the letter style and content varies widely. Some are in a fine hand, and are floridly expressed petitions and letters, written by hired professional writers, begging mercy in various guises. Some are fluently written letters, well-spelled, easy to read, written either by prisoners themselves (mainly men, although a few women wrote themselves) or by their educated friends and relations. Some are clumsy, badly spelled letters written by less educated, but nonetheless capable, scribes, such as turnkeys in gaols, paid for the task. Others were written by friends and relations, or by prisoners themselves, on the border of literacy, trying as best they could. Many of this last sort are interesting examples of 'oral writing', with phonetic orthography, sometimes exposing a local accent; for instance, Scottish (63), Irish (575–6, 596, 672), London (215, 677). The heavy accents of some of the scribes in Newgate come through clearly and help to identify, along with their handwriting style, the batches of letters they wrote for prisoners, mainly female prisoners (for instance, 54, 76, 78, 81). Some of the orthography is idiosyncratic and difficult to read, but, with patience can be decoded. A few letters are wildly scrawled (e.g. 204, 386); some writers realize their handwriting causes difficulty to the reader, and excuse themselves, like the writer who asks the recipient to 'Exceuse my Power ha[n]d' (672).

The recipients of the letters

Most letters were addressed to the Bank's solicitors, Freshfields. Some were addressed to the governor and company of the Bank, with a handful directed to their chief cashier, (fn. 16) or to investigators appointed by the Bank to assist in the apprehension of suspects and the accumulation and presentation of evidence. (fn. 17) Other letters were sent to lawyers acting for the Bank in various parts of the country, (fn. 18) or to police officers and magistrates who had been involved in the prosecution of the particular writer. A few were addressed to people who might be influential and able to petition the Bank on the prisoner's behalf. A handful were letters written to prisoners' wives, or friends, sometimes deliberately passed to Freshfields (e.g. 64–5), but sometimes finding their way to the solicitors' office having been intercepted by officials before they left the prison (400, 402–3).

Freshfields' office was the point on which all correspondence converged, whatever its intention. Whether well-written or scrawled, whether merely a rough paragraph, or a ramble of several pages, all were attended to by Freshfields' clerks and partners. The ceaseless flow of information was encouraged by the solicitors, as they sought to make themselves the clearing-house and repository for all information about the crime of Bank note forgery and those involved. Control was tight, reaction was prompt, and decision-making was centralized, based on astute use of a network of lawyers, police, informers and investigators. The means of communication was almost entirely through pen and paper.

The law firm which came to be known as Freshfields was well-known and respected in the City of London from the mid-eighteenth century. Today it is internationally renowned and still acts for the Bank of England. (fn. 19) In 1734, the Bank first appointed an 'attorney or solicitor', Samuel Dodds, from the firm which became Freshfields. Partners in Freshfields continued to hold that appointment over the period of 'restriction' and well beyond. In 1797, the partners were John Winter, senior, and Joseph Kaye. Winter held the appointment until 1808 jointly with Joseph Kaye who continued in the function until 1823. (fn. 20) It is Joseph Kaye's control and decision-making which is most apparent in responses to the letters in this volume.

During the 'restriction' period, other partners included Joseph Cam Maynard, from 1797–1800, Francis Beckwith, 1801–08, James W. Freshfield, 1801–40, John Winter, junior, 1805–08 and Charles Kaye, 1811–25. In 1818, because of the heavy work load, Joseph Kaye persuaded the Bank to appoint two additional solicitors, James Freshfield and Charles Kaye. During this period, the firm's offices were at 29, St Swithin's Lane, (1788–1808), 7, Tokenhouse Yard (1808–11) and 5, New Bank Buildings (1811–97), all of these addresses close to the Bank of England in the City of London. Letters addressed to the Bank's solicitors reflect the changes over the years in personnel and location. Writers appear knowledgeable about the personalities they wrote to and about the changes in the firm. Some writers preferred to address their letters to the individual chief clerks at Freshfields, and sometimes appear to have had an almost personal relationship with them. (fn. 21) Others would write for the attention of one of the Bank investigators whom they would have seen in person as they visited prisons to collect evidence, take down statements or check on the veracity of claims made in letters about prisoners' personal situations.

Little is known about the background of Freshfield's central actor, Joseph Kaye, who, without doubt, set the pattern for energetic criminal investigation, meticulous attention to detail, efficient office work and the sometimes benevolent responses made by the Bank to those they had prosecuted. He was the son of a Huddersfield worsted manufacturer who came to London to earn his living. He became a highly respected attorney whose clients, besides the Bank of England, included the Royal Exchange Assurance and the East India Company. His private clients, who included the close relations of William Wilberforce, and his partnership with James W. Freshfield, may indicate something about his interests. James Freshfield, an Anglican, was well-known and respected in dissenting circles through his quaker wife and was close to the Clapham sect of evangelical Anglicans. Some of the Bank directors and their families also were members of the Clapham sect or were sympathetic to evangelical causes. (fn. 22) Many were also directors of charitable institutions in London and left considerable charitable bequests. (fn. 23)

The senders of the letters and their objectives

There are nearly 700 letters and petitions in F25, written by, or on behalf of, prisoners held for forged note offences. Some were written before the prisoner's trial, but most afterwards. They involved 425 different prisoners; 201 individual women and 224 individual men can be distinguished. Since women were about 22 per cent of those prosecuted for this crime during the period covered by this collection of letters, clearly the letterwriting was disproportionately a female activity. Women were also more likely to be multi-letter writers who sometimes established what seems to have been a surprisingly close relationship with the Bank solicitors. (See the series of letters from Margaret Spears (250–5, 289–95), Ann Storey (281–8) and Sarah Howell (256–61, 330–1).)

This letter-writing was also a London-dominated activity, perhaps because of the proximity of Freshfields' offices to prisons in London and the ease of delivery of letters, or perhaps because of the large number of 'Bank prisoners' held for long periods in Newgate gaol, where word-of-mouth networks would have encouraged prisoners to write when they heard of the successful results achieved by some requesting favours. (fn. 24) About 93 per cent of the women held in Newgate awaiting death or transportation for forged Bank note crimes wrote at least once to their prosecutors; about 24 per cent of the men held in Newgate did so. Letters from prisoners apprehended and tried outside London were significantly fewer. (fn. 25)

It is not possible to be certain which letters were written in the hand of the prisoner him- or herself. It is probable that many of the men were able to write. This is suggested by the fact that, as some of them moved prisons, or transferred to hulks or on to ships, the hand-writing of their letters remained the same throughout. However, this is not necessarily evidence of their own ability to write, since the similarity of hand-writing could have been because they used the same scribes throughout the time. The numbers of different hands detectable in men's letters are fewer than in the women's letters suggesting that the men did not have the same frequency of need to pay turnkeys or to get others to write for them. Only a few women appear to have written their own letters. Many were able to write their own signatures, although many more could not, signing by mark. Jane Williams was a woman who could write, and write well. She did so on her own account and for other women in Newgate and on the transport ship, Lord Wellington (309, 377, 404–6, 408, 412, 424, 429, 433, 437–8, 451–2). (fn. 26) These letters were fluently and neatly written and well-spelled. Mary Lenny, a 'school-teacher and lodging-house keeper' (268–9) and Jemima Burton (756–7), the latter a fluent writer, are other examples of this minority of women. Martha Bramwell, not herself a 'Bank prisoner' provides an example of an enterprising woman who could write particularly well, using this skill to write for others, to read their incoming letters and pass information to Freshfields (175–7, 183).

Large batches of letters, particularly from women, are in the same hand and with the same orthography and repeated use of specific phrases. These were probably written by turnkeys or guards. For instance, a turnkey at Newgate, identifiable by his neat, unusual hand and spelling of 'Libberty' clearly wrote letters 469–76, 478, 486–7. On the transport ship Northampton, one scribe would have produced letters 184–9, 194–5; and for the men on the Retribution hulk, a scribe who wrote with a fine flourish penned at least 97–8, 101–3. Margaret Spears and Sarah Howell (see above) did not always use the same scribe for all of their marathon of letterwriting, presumably hiring whoever was available when needed.

When these prisoners engaged with the Bank and their solicitors, men and women had different objectives in mind. This was because they had different needs, and because they came to understand what sort of request would be successful. Both the letter-writing strategies and the responses to them were highly gendered. The table below indicates these gendered strategies. It is not possible to be sure of the purpose of every letter so the details given should not be regarded as any more than a guide to the tendencies. More than one request could be made in one letter and some requests were made several times by the same person or group of people. All have been included in the table.

Purpose of letters (where possible to deduce)

Figures given per letter, which may have more than one writer (particularly if from women), and some letters have more than one purpose

Purpose Males Females Total
To request pecuniary relief in gaol or on sailing 84 287 371
To provide information on forgery (for reward or favours) 93 14 107
To seek mitigation of sentence (of death or of transportation) 51 16 67
To request spouse or family be transported with them 31 5 36
To request return of property or money taken on arrest 26 5 31
To give thanks for pecuniary relief allowed in prison 1 26 27
To plead to lesser offence at trial 21 5 26
To speed up transportation 18 7 25
To claim innocence of crime for which sentenced 11 2 13
To seek permission to join army/navy/transfer to hulk 7 0 7
To seek recommendation to governor of NSW 3 0 3
To delay transportation 2 1 3
To be afforded protection 2 1 3
To seek privileges while in prison (e.g. visits) 2 0 2
To seek care for children left behind (by widower) 2 0 2
To be allowed to self-exile 2 0 2
Other (why son had to write for her; how to be witness in court) 0 2 2
(Letters to friends ending up with Bank solicitors) 2 5 7

Pecuniary relief was what nearly all the women desired, few writing about other issues. Men had varied strategies in their letter writing; many appear to have been financially independent, which few women were. They were also more able to acquire work in prison and on the hulks from which they received part of their pay for use while prisoners; there was little prison work available to women. A significant number of men wanted to obtain advantages for themselves by informing on others involved in forged note activities. They often told long and complicated stories about people they knew and where they were to be found and for this reason many of the men's letters were much longer than women's.

The misery experienced in prisons, especially in Newgate, provides for a litany of destitution which can be read in most letters. Little detail is given about the conditions in which prisoners were trying to survive; there was no need, since the recipients of the letters would have known well enough. There are very few references which are in any way descriptive of Newgate; one speaks of it as a 'maloncoley dwaling' (74), another of its 'Gloomey Warells [walls]' (54), another, after being held there for fourteen months, called it a 'gloommy, weary prison' (431). However, the penury, friendlessness, gross over-crowding, ill-health and hunger are endlessly appealed, together with the appalling difficulty of giving birth and nursing babies in this environment, and of keeping little children fed and clothed. This picture fits with a contemporary description of the women's side of Newgate:

Nearly three-hundred women, sent there for every gradation of crime, some untried, and some under sentence of death, were crowded together in the two wards and two cells ... Here they saw their friends and kept their multitudes of children ... they slept on the floor at times one hundred and twenty in one ward, without so much as a mat for bedding, and many of them were very nearly naked ... Everything was filthy to excess, and the smell was quite disgusting. Every one, even the Governor, was reluctant to go amongst them. (fn. 27)

Prisons at this time were still being run by 'entrepreneurial' gaolers. Some were paid a salary (as was the keeper of Newgate) but all of them had to find ways of covering operating costs and making a profit. Thus, as many prisoners as possible had to be charged fees for as many things as possible – for admission, for food beyond the gaol allowance, for straw to lie on, for coal and candles, for leg irons to be removed. Prisoners with some money were targets for the greed of gaolers and made to pay well for 'comforts'. (fn. 28) A tiny handful of letters from male prisoners are marked as having come from writers in the 'Master's Side' or the 'State Side' of the prison where they would have paid for better treatment. The vast majority were unable to pay. The women in particular had to scrape around for every penny, notably obtaining resources from pawning any object they had, particularly their clothing. Some prisoners continued trading in forged currency. This did not recommend the women who did so as 'fit objects for mercy'. (fn. 29) Hence their appeals went straight to the point; money was desperately needed, whether in exchange for useful information, or merely because 'the Gentlemen of the Bank' were known to be benevolent.

Life for men on the hulks was an appalling experience. Some sought to avoid it, or pleaded to be transported quickly. In the Thames and at Portsmouth and Plymouth, the convicts were employed at hard labour, on river and harbour cleaning and other construction work, driven like slaves and inadequately fed. Only two prisoners give a glimpse of the degrading and dangerous nature of life on a hulk (64–5, 110).

Responses to letters (fn. 30)

Many of the letters were annotated on receipt to show the decision taken on their contents, whether positive or negative. Where the letter itself was not annotated, the BECLS minutes might record the decision made. Information from both these sources has been inserted after the text of the relevant letters. Where evidence of a response is not available, it is likely that either none was made or that the Bank and their solicitors had their reasons for keeping their decisions under cover, for instance when they were planning to follow up information given about forgery activities, particularly if they were going to use witnesses whom they wished to keep anonymous.

Negative responses were always made to prisoners awaiting execution. There was never the slightest intention of supporting a request for mercy to be made to the Prince Regent or through the home secretary. These men and women had been prosecuted with single-minded efficiency and at great cost. The Bank felt the ends of justice had been served and a few executions might well prove a high-profile deterrent to others. In these cases, a terse reply would be made to the prisoner or to their prison keeper, stating that 'consistent with their duty to the public' the governor and directors of the Bank would not interfere (300, 440, 446, 513, 672, 673, 747). A response of this nature to Charlotte Newman who wrote an impassioned letter on the eve of her execution is a chilling example (305).

Such responses can be seen as an appropriate extension of the massive prosecution enterprise, as are the responses to those who said they had information to give. Sometimes these offers were ignored, since the Bank solicitors knew, through the efficiency of their own networks of police, lawyers and investigators, that the informant was not trustworthy; sometimes their response would show irritation towards those they felt were only seeking reward or revenge and who had no new or useful information to give (e.g. 743). Payments to some prisoners for information which led to arrests and successful prosecutions were commensurate with the Bank's prosecution strategy whereby large rewards were paid out to all and sundry who assisted in the apprehension of forgers and members of their networks and in giving evidence against them. The few payments that were made to a small handful of male prisoners were mostly of this nature, whether one-off amounts or a weekly allowance while they were held in gaol. These payments were recorded in the BECLS minutes, not in any written response to the informant. Sometimes the Bank preferred the payment to go to the informant's wife or family. To the wife of informer William Henningham, there was a payment of £5; £10 for the wife and family of Charles Games to assist with their expenses when they sailed with him (158); £25 for Maria, widow of executed Daniel Davies, so she might open a chandler's shop to support her three children; £20 for the widow of executed Edward Harland, to maintain her family; £5 for Ann Dale (153), wife of transported informer, Henry, for a mangle to do laundry work to support herself; and £25 for Mary Gilbert, wife of Samuel, another transported informer, to set herself up in service to support her four small children (674). (fn. 31) Otherwise, charity to men was significantly lacking, and their requests were usually ignored. The Bank's policy on 'charitable donations' was made clear in Freshfields' response to two men who suggested that all prisoners were allowed £5 on embarking the transport ships. They were informed that they were mistaken; such money might be given to some women as a matter of charity, but never to men (663).

However, what is surprising, since it does not sit easily with the harsh story of prosecution, was the response to very many of the women prisoners, particularly those in Newgate. 'Relief, 'subsistence', 'allowance', 'a trifle for necessaries' (like tea and sugar) (fn. 32) was the incessant demand from these women, and this they received in abundance. In 1806, half a guinea (10s. 6d.) a week until they left to go on board the transport ship was the amount normally paid. The Bank decided by 1810 that this level of generosity could not continue when they saw how numerous forgery cases were and how long was the wait for women in prison while ships were made ready for them. The amount paid then dropped to 7s. a week. From 1811 until 1821, when the Bank intended to cease all these payments as the period of restriction ended, the payments could be 5s. a week for childless women who were found to be in extreme distress, 7s. 6d. for women with one child and sometimes 10s. 6d. for women with more than one child. In addition to this surprising generosity, there was usually a payment of £5 (in a few cases rather more) to virtually all women as they embarked on the transport ships. This embarkation money would also be paid to women from prisons outside London if they applied, having met up with women from London and learnt what might be on offer. It is worth remembering the high cost to the Bank of the prosecutions of these prisoners and the fact that they had faced charges of uttering notes of £1 or £2 value.

When pleas for subsistence money or for money to redeem clothes from pledge came in to Freshfields' offices, generosity was not blind. There were women to whom 'relief was not paid; a few did not even merit the embarkation money. Those whose husbands were still in the country, even though themselves incarcerated, were refused until the men had been transported. Women who had been notorious sellers and utterers, especially those who continued to trade in prison, were refused all pecuniary relief. (fn. 33) Relief payments were not usually made to women who had refused the offer of a plea bargain in court, although they received money on sailing. The Bank had also been severely criticized by the home secretary and the Prince Regent in cases where they had been judged to be manipulating the courts with their advice to defendants on how to plead; somewhat embarrassed by the criticism, they were reluctant to accede to these women's pleas. (fn. 34) Investigators were sent to Newgate to report on the genuineness of the requests; were the prisoners really in special distress, without friends, pregnant, had recently given birth or were ill? Sometimes the keeper passed his own (usually negative) views on the applicants. The investigators might agree with him, but in many cases often reported sympathetically to Freshfields, allowing many single women in particularly difficult situations to be generously paid (e.g. 356, 360). Some women seem to have regarded the relief payments as their due, calling it the 'fortnight money'. Some were even prepared to argue about the amounts received; one woman said she had received only enough for one child when she had three (265–6); others upbraided the Bank for being overdue with their payments (261, 264, 267), another thought she had been forgotten since a gaol mate had received money and she had not (330–1).

Nevertheless, a sense of gratitude was more often than not present in the letters. This may, of course, have been an aspect of begging strategy, but the benevolence of the Bank meant a great deal to many prisoners. They were also grateful for the opportunity to plead guilty to a lesser offence and thus avoid the chance of being sentenced to death; certainly Freshfields presented this device to them as an act of great mercy on the part of the Bank. Letters speak of 'philanthropy [which] saved me from an ignominious death' (61), of 'having been mercifully spared thro the humanity' of the Bank (377), of being 'deeply impressed with gratitude for the lenity shewn us' (394), and thanks for the 'Great mercy Extended to Me in my Life being Graciously Spared' (433). Many of the women's letters express thanks and some were written with this sole purpose (e.g. 359, 399, 585).

This collection of letters and responses suggests an unusual relationship. Some of the requests may fit the standard categories of charitable donation in the early nineteenth century. However, it might be appropriate to see many of the responses as exceptional examples of benevolence shown by prosecutors to criminals whom they had energetically pursued through the system of justice. (fn. 35) The Bank seem to have been motivated by a style of philanthropy which harked back to an earlier generation. Their benevolence was not determined by the moral deserts of the seeker of charity – far from it. What appears to have mattered to the Bank, to Freshfields and to those they sent to investigate appeals for charity, was whether the supplicant really was distressed, ill, in need of clothing, or food or whether children were suffering.

There could hardly have been more distance between two sides of a relationship. On one side was a powerful financial institution and its competent, professional legal advisers and agents. On the other were the miserable wretches who had, according to prevailing notions, placed their country in danger by their traitorous behaviour and who were now justly suffering as they awaited disposal to an inhospitable penal colony, far from their native country, leaving all they knew and loved. This was not a simple relationship of the powerless to the powerful. Conventions for requesting and receiving charity were presumably well-known to these supplicants who also knew a great deal about the motives and responses of the rich and powerful. They were not addressing an anonymous entity, as the language and address of many of the letters shows. The Bank may have had the upper hand in this relationship but, although they and Freshfields were in control, (fn. 36) prisoners knew how to use their knowledge of the rich and powerful to try to obtain the means of survival or to make an intolerable life more tolerable. Through this letter-writing, the voices of the poor were both listened to and heard, some of them to an extent that surprises, given the nature of the relationship between writer and recipient of the letters.

Editorial method and acknowledgements

Each document in this volume has been given a consecutive number (in bold print) which is followed by the reference number now used in the Bank archives (in italics). The renumbering of the archive at the Bank of England took place during my work on it. I have set out the letters in the order in which they were filed in their bundles (letter of request, responses and other documents relating to the request). Some transcribed letters are therefore indicated by a group of Bank archive reference numbers covering the letter and responses that go with it. The reference renumbering of F25 preserved the somewhat chaotic way in which these papers were originally put together. That order has normally been kept, although this may sometimes make the 'story' difficult to follow. An exception has occasionally been made where adjacent pieces in the files have been put into chronological order to make the 'story' easier to follow. As the vast majority of the letters were addressed either to Freshfields solicitors, or to the governors and company of the Bank, this has not been mentioned in the letter headings. An indication of the intended first recipient of the letter is given if this was not the Bank nor Freshfields.

Letters and petitions from prisoners held in connection with forged Bank note offences have been transcribed in full, except in the following three circumstances:

i) where formal petitions were sent in standard format, asking to plead to the lesser offence of possession of forged notes, and where the decision to offer this plea to the prisoner had already been taken by the Bank, the petition is summarized (in italics); ii) where a formal petition format was used to communicate in any other case, the standard introduction (e.g. 'To the Governor and Company of the Bank of England, The Humble Petition of ... ...a convict in His Majesty's Gaol of Newgate Most Humbly Sheweth) has been omitted in each case and the transcription commenced with the petition paragraphs prefaced by the word 'That'; iii) where a prisoner sent a further letter at about the same time as an earlier letter and the later letter merely reiterates what had already been said, the subsequent letter has been summarized (in italics). All other documents in F25 have been summarized (in italics), be they letters from debtors, bankrupts, prisoners convicted of other offences, arrest warrants, lists of prisoners for arraignment or transportation, bills or receipts, or correspondence with the home office. Where a letter was annotated by the recipient or where, subsequent to receipt of the letter, other correspondence ensued (for example, responses from Freshfields, reports of Bank investigators, letters to solicitors acting for the Bank elsewhere in England, or to the home office), this information is presented after the letter concerned. Where the letter was recorded as having been discussed at the BECLS, this information is also given.

In the transcribed letters, spelling, punctuation (or more often the lack of), capitalization and abbreviations have been left as written. This does not normally cause difficulty in understanding and allows a closer relationship with the original writer. Where the writer has in error repeated a word, the duplicate word has been omitted. Where a word has been inserted in the letter by the writer at the time of writing, this has been included in the text without remark; only insertions made by annotation at a later time, usually by the recipient, have been noted in the brief editorial comment following the letter. Where the writer has crossed-through a word or words, usually making it unreadable, the deleted words have been ignored. Editorial comment has occasionally been inserted in the transcribed text, in italics and in square brackets in order to clarify information about a person mentioned in the letter or to note that a word(s) has been impossible to read. The layout of the transcribed letters has been modified to eliminate unnecessary 'white space'. The salutation, usually appearing on its own on the first line, and the valediction, occupying several short lines at the end, have been absorbed into the body of the letter text. However, where the writer broke up the rest of the text by the use of different paragraphs, this structure has been retained.

Acknowledgements: The editor would like to thank all who have helped her prepare this text for publication; in particular, Sarah Millard, archivist at the Bank of England for her help in handling my questions about the archive and for her welcome to me at the Bank; Bridget Kirk for managing microfilm copying at the Bank; the staff of the Archives Départmentales de l'Yonne in Auxerre for assistance in microfilm reading; Tim Hitchcock, Peter King, Vanessa Harding for advice on introductory material and indexing; Robin Eagles for his thoughtful oversight of the volume; the partners of Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer; Richard Palk for his enduring help and support, generously, wisely and patiently given.


  • 1. Prosecution costs varied from about £ 114 to £ 150 per person prosecuted at times of high activity (1811–20) to £380 per person in times of low activity (1822). In addition, rewards for assistance in apprehension and giving evidence varied from around £200 each six months to £2,800 after the prosecution of 132 cases in May 1818. Records of these expenses were entered half-yearly in BECLS: M5/307–33.
  • 2. For the period of 'restriction', see W. M. Acres, The Bank of England from Within, i, (1931), 275–90, 299–348; Sir John Clapham, The Bank of England (Cambridge, 1944), i, 253–72; ii, 1–16; B. J. Hilton, Corn, Cash, Commerce, the Economic Policies of the Tory Governments, 1815–30 (1977).
  • 3. The Bank also supervised the issue of silver coin. This included dollars valued at between 4s. 6d. and 5s. 6d. and tokens for 5s. 6d., 3s. and 1s. 6d.; these were reused Spanish dollars captured from Spanish vessels, over-stamped at the royal mint with an impression of the head of George III on the neck of the Spanish king; several millions were issued from 1797 to provide coin for making small payments. From about 1811 to 1819, the Bank were also responsible for the issue of silver tokens, minted from melteddown French crowns and ingots; an even larger number was in circulation; Acres, Bank of England, i, 278–80, 299–310; E. M. Kelly, Spanish Dollars and Silver Tokens (1976).
  • 4. These may have been seen as low value notes, but in the early nineteenth century a labourer's weekly wage could be less than £1. Thomas Sokoll (ed.), Essex Pauper Letters, 1731–1837 (Oxford, 2001), 10, suggests a national annual income per head of £23; a woman prisoner (164) stated that her husband, presumably better paid than a labourer, had 30s. a week.
  • 5. G.B. Mainwaring, 'Observations on the Present State of the Police in the Metropolis', Pamphleteer, xix (1822), 544. For the Bank's prosecution business, see Randall McGowen, 'From Pillory to Gallows: the Punishment of Forgery in the Age of Financial Revolution', Past and Present, clxv (1999), 107–40; 'The Bank of England and the Policing of Forgery', Past and Present, clxxxvi (2005), 81–116; 'Managing the Gallows: the Bank of England and the Death Penalty, 1797–1821', Law and History Review, 25/2 (2007), 241–82; Deirdre Palk, Gender, Crime and Judicial Discretion, 1780–1830 (Woodbridge, 2006), 89–112.
  • 6. In addition, they prosecuted about 1,000 counterfeiters and utterers of tokens and dollars, some of whose letters to Freshfields are summarized in this volume.
  • 7. 8 & 9 Will.3, c.20; 12 Geo. 1, c.32. These offences ceased to be capital in 1832.
  • 8. 41 Geo.3, c.39. See McGowen, 'Managing the Gallows' for this strategic move, the reasons for it and the drafting of the bill.
  • 9. In London (to those tried at the Old Bailey), the plea-bargain offer was made by the Bank to 88 per cent of women, and 85 per cent of men, and was taken up by 88 per cent of men and women to whom it was offered. Plea-bargaining was a rare strategy in other felony trials at the time. See Palk, Gender, Crime, 99–101.
  • 10. BECLS: M5/307–33.
  • 11. BECLS: M5/307–33. See Palk, Gender, Crime, 89–112, 118–19, 121–2, 131–5 for discussion of pre-trial and trial procedures and sentences in Bank of England forged note cases; and McGowen, 'Policing of Forgery' for the Bank's well co-ordinated apprehension strategies.
  • 12. The numbers of those actually hanged for forged Bank note offences can be compared with the fate of those sentenced to death for the property crimes of pickpocketing and shoplifting in London and Middlesex from 1804 until the time when all three were no longer capital offences; (pickpocketing, 1808, shoplifting, 1823, forged Bank note crimes, 1832). Of eight death sentences for pickpocketing, and sixty-four for shoplifting, none was carried out. Of the 126 death sentences for Bank note offences, fiftyeight were carried out. Murder, not surprisingly secured the highest rate of execution in the early years of the nineteenth century; various forgery crimes were the property crimes where execution was most likely, followed by robberies, burglaries and other violent thefts. Palk, Gender, Crime, 49–53, 78–81, 106–7, 118–21, 125–35.
  • 13. See Palk, Gender, Crime, 121–2, for London and Middlesex 'Bank convicts'. It is likely that similar outcomes relate to other parts of the country.
  • 14. Freshfields' papers relating to work for the Bank were transferred to the Bank's Roehampton record office in 1909. Most files were heavily 'weeded' in the 1980s before being added to the Bank archive in the City of London. However, F25 appears to be intact; this is indicated by the fact that names on letters and petitions can be traced for nearly all women likely to have been in Newgate during the period of this archive.
  • 15. See Sokoll, Essex Pauper Letters, 44–70 for informative descriptions of letters which resemble many of those in this volume in their form and style.
  • 16. From 1778–1807, Abraham Newland held this position, and from 1807–29, Henry Hase.
  • 17. The first investigators of Bank notes, appointed in 1804, were Thomas Glover and Thomas Bliss. See Acres, Bank of England, 332, for their tasks, pay and vicissitudes. Over time, they were joined by others, including John Lee(s), Charles Christmas and Charles Procter.
  • 18. Among whom were William Spurrier in Birmingham, John Lloyd in Stockport, J. Ridpath in Bath, Moses Greetham in Plymouth.
  • 19. Currently operating as Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer in London and world-wide.
  • 20. Winter's appointment was not technically terminated until 1830.
  • 21. Until mid-1818, many letters were addressed to James Westwood; after that to Mr Rooker, frequently called 'Hooker' or 'Crooker', or to Joseph Maynard, jr.
  • 22. Judy Slinn, A History of Freshfields (Guildford, 1984), 29–66.
  • 23. D. T. Andrews, Philanthropy and Police (Princeton, NJ, 1989) lists charitable directorships and bequests; her list includes names of several governors and directors of the Bank who were members of the BECLS.
  • 24. Descriptions of Newgate at this time emphasize the over-crowded conditions. This had, however, been a long-term problem in all prisons in and beyond London. Women in Newgate were free to associate daily in the common yard outside the 'female side' of the prison; they slept and ate in close proximity in a series of relatively small rooms; Arthur Griffiths, The Chronicles of Newgate (1987), 344–7; Albert Crew, London Prisons of Today and Yesterday (1933), 63–6. Networks of information and continued criminal activity were actively participated in.
  • 25. In F25 there are letters from 119 individual women and 112 individual men in Newgate. Letters from another thirty women and another twenty-two men in Newgate are not in F25 but are recorded in BECLS minutes; it is likely they were delivered directly to the committee. Letters from prisoners held in prisons other than Newgate number eightyfive from women, 102 from men.
  • 26. Her first letter (308), written in Newgate while awaiting trial at the OB, was not in her own hand.
  • 27. T. F. Buxton, An Inquiry whether Crime and Misery are produced or prevented by our present System of Prison Discipline (1818), 113. Newgate in the first decade of the nineteenth century held between 500 and 1,200 (felons and debtors, remand prisoners and convicted felons, youths and adults, all unsegregated); 300 debtors were often held in the space for 100, 120 women in the space for sixty. This was not only a London problem; in 1818, 100 gaols across the country, with places for 8,545 prisoners, were holding 13,057; Griffiths, Chronicles, 343–4, 389–90. A useful source for conditions in prisons at this time is A. D. Smith, Women in Prison: a Study in Penal Methods, (1962).
  • 28. The Gaol Fees Abolition Act 1815 signalled the decline of this system, but it was many years before it was entirely disposed of, particularly at Newgate. Fees on the 'Master's Side' or the 'State Side' of Newgate could include payments of between 3s. and 3 guineas for admission, 13s. 4d. a week for extra food, coal and candles, 10s. 6d. a week for a bed; Crew, London Prisons, 61–6.
  • 29. Description commonly used in BECLS minutes and in annotations made on letters by recipients.
  • 30. For a fuller discussion of the responses made to prisoners' requests, see Deirdre Palk, '"Fit Objects for Mercy": gender, the Bank of England and currency criminals, 1804–1833', Women's Writing, 11/2 (2004), 237–57.
  • 31. BECLS minutes: Henningham, M5/311, 25 Sept., 4 Dec. 1811, 19 Feb. 1812; Games, M5/313, 12 May, 1 Dec. 1813; Davies, M5/312, 9 Sept. 1812; Harland, M5/315, 12/13 Apr. 1815; Dale, M5/314, 20 Apr. 1814; Gilbert, M5/316, 29 Feb. 1816.
  • 32. Tea and sugar were much desired both while in prison (218, 232, 463, 481), and when embarking on transport ships (28, 34, 38, 191, 637). Female prisoners boarding the Lady Juliana in 1789 had complained that the allowance of beef was too much for them and they wished it to be substituted by tea and sugar. An allowance of a quarter pound of tea per week between six women, and three pounds of sugar per week between six was then made. This tallies with the information given to the writer of 34, an amount which she felt insufficient. Such an allowance was not made to men; Wilfrid Oldham, Britain's Convicts to the Colonies (Sydney, 1990), 158–9, from information in home office archives.
  • 33. Among them, Elizabeth Hayselden, BECLS: M5/317, 11 & 25 July 1816; Elizabeth and Rebecca Bamford, Mary Bradney, Anne Dicken, Amelia Hines, Sarah Orton, M5/322, 19 May 1819, described as 'very notorious wholesale dealers and unworthy of the liberality of the Bank to afford relief.
  • 34. For example, Hannah Polley, Elizabeth Wingfield, Susan Farmilo. BECLS: M5/320, 2 July 1818; M5/321, 10 Mar. 1819.
  • 35. For a discussion of charity and its changing nature in this period, see Andrew, Philanthropy and Police; Hugh Cunningham and Joanna Innes (eds), Charity, Philanthropy and Reform from the 1690s to 1850, (Basingstoke, 1998), 87–107.
  • 36. This control is clearly signalled in the response to a proposal for a 'better use' of the Bank's charity from Elizabeth Pryor of the committee of ladies for regulating the conduct of females convicted of felony (553).