CASE 6: FROM WHITECHAPEL TO WHERE
BY DAVID MURRAY
The First Fleet disembarked at New South Wales in 1788 with documents solipsistically claiming land ownership and a sideline reference to dual occupancy with the local Aborigines. The new proprietors claimed (to themselves) that they would endeavour by every possible means to open an intercourse with the natives, and to conciliate their affection, enjoining all our subjects to live in amity and kindness with them. And if any of our subjects shall wantonly destroy them, or give them unnecessary interruption in the exercise of their several occupations, it is our will and pleasure that you do cause such offenders to be brought to punishment according to the degree of the offence. (i)
Plans for this co-existence were drawn up in London using Joseph Banks’ Endeavour diaries and expedition landing party reports of the east coast being inhabited by a scattering of Natives who lived a vagrant, peripatetic existence of no consequence.
The seemingly benign instructions registered the land as wild and empty. This legally cast New South Wales Natives as heathens unable to conceive of the King James Bible God who could not represent themselves or give evidence as Lockean individuals in a British court of law. Without consultation they were suddenly non-citizen refugees in their own land.
On August 30, 1786 — around the time Arthur Phillip was signing off his commission — London’s Old Bailey was squeezing a dozen unfortunate knucklers and toby-men back into the dock for final sentencing before the Chief Recorder, Judge Adair. A political maverick and reform advocate who favoured compassion over the gallows, Adair nonetheless donned the black cap and gravely pronounced to the prisoners before him that ‘you have all been convicted upon satisfactory evidence, and by the verdicts of very merciful and attentive juries, of crimes which the laws of your country have thought necessary to punish with death; the dread of that punishment, the respect due to the laws of God and your Country, and even the dreadful examples which have been held forth to you by other unfortunate and wretched sufferers, in situations similar to yours, have unhappily for you been insufficient, to produce that effect on your minds, which should have deterred you from the commission of those crimes which have brought you into a like unfortunate situation: It would therefore be in vain for me to expect that anything I can say to you would make a deeper impression on you than those repeated examples. It therefore only remains for me (after earnestly praying that the little time which now will be allotted to you to live, should be so employed as to secure that pardon for you hereafter, which you cannot hope to receive here) to proceed to the last and most painful part of my duty, in pronouncing on you the dreadful sentence of the law, which is, that you, and each of you, be taken from hence to the place from whence you came, and from thence to the place of execution, there to be hanged by the neck until you are dead: and may the Lord have mercy upon your sinful souls.’ (ii) The reality of Adair’s fearsome speech was beyond any future George Connoway, George Lee and Alexander Seaton might have dreamed up as they sat conspiring a few weeks earlier in The Blue Anchor Inn.
A Rosemary Lane landmark, the Blue Anchor was a nexus in the pumping, shabby heart of the Rag Fair, which along with wholesaling clothing for export to the colonies was a tawdry and vibrant cornucopia where Londoners flocked for old boots and shoes; old clothes, both men’s, women’s, and children’s; new lace, for edgings, and a variety of cheap prints and muslins, and often of the commonest kinds (also new); for hats and bonnets; pots; tins; old knives and forks, old scissors, and old metal articles generally; here and there a stall of cheap bread or American cheese, or what is announced as American; old glass; different descriptions of second-hand furniture, of the smaller size, such as children’s chairs, bellows, &c. Mixed with these, but only very scantily, are a few bright looking swag-barrows, with china ornaments, toys, &c. Some of the wares were spread on the ground, on wrappers, or on pieces of matting or carpet; and some, as the pots, occasionally placed on straw. The cotton prints were often heaped on the ground, along with ranges or heaps of boots and shoes, and piles of old clothes, or hats or umbrellas. Other trades placed their goods on stalls or barrows, or over an old chair or clothes-horse. And amidst all this motley display the buyers and sellers smoke, and shout, and doze, and bargain, and wrangle, and eat, and drink tea and coffee, and sometimes beer. (iii)
The activity attracted seasoned Whitechapel criminal family men like George Connoway. Respected locally as a solo sharp and tough, but fair dealing fencer, Connoway also kept a thoughtful eye on the unexpected, which in 1786 included such as the doubling of livestock prices. It made Bullock snatching from the numerous slaughterhouses around the Poplar docks a fair risk enterprise. Connoway had spooked the business of a Mr Hill and noticed his yard regularly overstocked at the beginning of each fortnight. Connoway’s plan was to steal two or three bullocks. The plan coincided with him meeting George Lee and Alexander Seaton. Both were keen newcomers from across the river at Southwark who had worked as thugs collecting repayments of kiddy-fingered debts. Connoway thought their physicality was right for the job and offered them in. The pinch sounded straight up: remove the animals from the yard for on sale to a sly butcher. Unlike sliver or watches meat chopped up was unidentifiable and untraceable. If that sale fell through there was the alternative of selling to one of the few remaining bull-baiting operations that continued to operate on the city’s clandestine edges.
Lee and Seaton removed two resigned bullocks from Hill’s stockade without incident and shepherded them through the benign blue light of pre-dawn London. The animals’ hooves clicked meditatively on the cobbles of snaking, East End rookery lanes. They made good time to the butcher’s when constables appeared from the shadows armed with wooden clubs and restraining irons. The disinterested button eyed cattle dropped steaming turds as Lee and Seaton were chained and taken into custody. Connoway joined them two days later. The butcher they sly’d a deal with turned out to be one of Hill’s regular and most loyal vendors.
The decrepit ex-royal pleasure garden of Green Park was an arrowed public space dissecting Hyde and St James Park. It was a shortcut home for the drunken Mr Thomas Holmes and Mr Ellis after a night of potting and conversation until armed, masked men jumped from a particularly stygian grove demanding they empty their pockets. While Mr Ellis complied, Mr Holmes impulsively wrestled for the pistol, which remained tight in the assailant’s rock like fist. Continued kicking and struggling only resulted in Holmes slipping on the night-damp ground.
Holmes later remembered himself like an insect trapped in a water drop. The damp grass, the keen air and thick clothes on his flesh felt no more real than the fog patches drifting about the park that night. He remembered the sure click of a pulled trigger and the clean snap of the flintlock followed by silence then warm urine pooling around his crotch. In this chaotic synaesthesia, any linear narrative of images, sound and colour resisted connection. For Thomas Holmes’ time was a fractured, dreamlike series of fact and fiction chasing their shadows — like some poetaster’s Romantic metaphysical fancy.
His certainty did return when he remembered a second trigger-pull but again, no barking irons … thank the Lord for damp London nights. Emboldened by this reprieve Holmes galvanically reanimated himself and began wrestling again, only to feel a flailing pistol against his skull, hard enough for the works to break apart. Mr Ellis meanwhile remembered shuffling boots and indistinct, insinuating laughter filtering through his ringing ears … his pockets inverted and emptied … nothing to see but damned shadows and the icy, agitated streams of his own breath … gestural terror.
Certain their victims had silently knuckled under, the three cross-hard footpads left the two gentlemen to a bruised humbling, minus one silver watch, value 40 s. a steel chain, value 6 d. a seal, value 2 d. a man’s hat, value 5 s. a guinea, value 21 s. and 18d in monies numbered. (iv) For John Turwood, Daniel Chambers and James Gall, the robbery was another plum hit; enough for a week’s share each of sweets, meat, cunt and ale.
Professional ruthlessness set the gang apart from most East End footpads. Relentless patience made them expert at knowing when to jump an unsuspecting mark, and leave them to feel like a carronade had just exploded in their chest. Time was transmuted into a few indefinite, dizzying, exploitable seconds. Acute knowledge of their East End geography meant they disappeared like fog into its maze of narrow and haphazardly arranged streets, slums, canals and factories.
The cocksure three were unprepared when Bow Street Runners rounded them up in the days following the park robbery. The gang’s leader James Gall tried swallowing silver coins while being restrained by two constables. A search of his digs produced a watch and pistol piece (fitting the broken half recovered in the park by the police). Gall may have drawn attention to himself (and the gang’s activities) being one of the most vocal provocateurs encouraging a mob to burn down an Irishman’s house during the recent Gordon Riots. Some of the mob returned after this ruckus to find their houses looted.
James Gall did take his role as senior family man seriously. At the trial he staunchly claimed Turwood and Chambers ‘knew nothing of the robbery, it was two other men that was along with me, I know nothing of these men, only seeing them once at a public house, and that was all.’ (v) After having wilfully attempted to shoot Thomas Holmes in Green Park, Gall was just as defiantly willing to hang for his family ways. Beyond the material evidence of the watch and the broken pistol piece at the trial, Thomas Holmes detailed description of the tactile, Greek contours of his attacker’s magnificent, marble-cold legs confirmed Gall as his attacker. A constable would reinforce this by mentioning how Gall’s titanic thighs had made his arrest difficult.
There would be no late pardon for James Gall and he danced the gallows for the Holmes and Ellis’ robbery. John Turwood and Daniel Chambers did receive a King’s Pardon and were placed on a transportation list. The pardons coincided with new laws such as the Transportation Act of 1770, which provided even hard-line judges with a more merciful alternative to the increasingly complex ‘bloody code’ of capital offences. As a legal concept, mercy allowed Empire Britannia to present a less vindictive public face to itself. The world reflected Doctor Johnson’s recently revised dictionary definition of mercy as being tenderness; goodness; pity; willingness to save; clemency; mildness; unwillingness to punish, to pardon, and Discretion and the power of acting at pleasure. (vi)
While awaiting transfer from a Thames hulk, the two remaining Green Park robbers were surprised to find the famous Rosemary Lane fence George Connoway already there (in league with two burly men they had never seen). The gang had done fair business with Connoway in the past. The two Green Park Robbers and the three bullock boys consequently formed a convenient alliance, a practical move in prison, where those without cunning, muscle, coin or chums were quickly subsumed and exploited as factotums, mollies or hanks. It was even worse for females who sewed, cleaned, prepared food, begged or fucked their way into protection. The gang of five sashayed the yard like lord mayors.
THE BISHOP OF LOST ALLEYS
On the same May 1786 day of the bullock brothers’ trial, William Sutton was giving evidence in an adjoining court. He explained doing business on Craven Street (a rat’s dash from Rosemary Lane) ’when I heard the cry of stop thief; I looked up Craven street, and saw the prisoner running at a considerable distance, and several people were running, but I saw nobody speak or touch him; the others were running in pursuit of him at a considerable distance; I stopped the prisoner.’ (vii) Sutton did not notice any of the stolen items on the frightened man’s person (which would include silver coins and a watch), but he remarkably persuaded the fleeing man, Robert Jones, he would protect him from a chasing mob if Jones gave himself. Jones was sentenced to seven years transportation.
Despite his downmarket rookery address not far from Rosemary Lane, William Sutton presented as swell dressed and educated in conversation. In another life or city he might have passed for a gentleman. The one time government excise officer had been dismissed without charge over deception matters, but used these skills to build an alternative career as a forger and minor crime bishop. His chief business was Shylock loans, fake contracts and fee-for-service advice to illiterate Whitechapel locals who found the language and legalese of business beyond them. Sutton also operated as a broomstick supplying food, liquor, tobacco or small coin loans to select associates in custody, on one occasion coughing up as provider for the Green Park robber John Turwood over a non-capital misdemeanour charge. As a government clerk Sutton had been an integral cog in the human machine inking and maintaining the balance sheets and administrative papers of empire Britannia. There was an almost recondite visual poetry to the precise roundhand of his illegal bills of sale and fake legal contracts. His beautiful scripted fictions turned the heartless, but human world of economic exchange into an alchemic and profitable reality.
Sutton understood the conflicted mechanics of human relationships tying greed and aspiration to desperation and need. A Whitechapel street beggar was to him an orphaned prince. He could play the molly, family hard man, businessman, philosopher or threatening maniac as circumstance dictated. Sutton was a regular saltbox visitor to condemned Green Park robber James Gall, bringing him fresh bread, black ale, dispassionate sympathy and philosophical discussion about the interconnected vagaries of bullock meat and the end of days.
Sutton would also occasionally leave his Whitechapel enclave posing as a tax-collection officer offering discounts to publicans willing to advance-pay their six-weekly liquor licence fee duty. The rort undid him in July of 1789 after a receipt he issued to the owner of The Bunch of Grapes Inn, Cripplegate was recognised as a forgery by the publican’s daughter.
Sutton was arrested with further incriminating documents. He secured the celebrated William Garrow as defence counsel, but even the great persuader of criminal law (and populariser of the stirring maxim ‘innocent until proven guilty’) was unable to penetrate the stolid English clerks at trial. As they dryly pointed out, the distribution process for receipts was a strictly demarcated process. For an officer to sign off an excise certificate directly amounted to procedural anarchy. While his natural composure and knowledge made Sutton flash to most moves on the board, the dull inevitability of bureaucratic procedure ultimately caught him out. With or without Garrow the case against Sutton was compelling. He knew how to commit this fraud, because he knew very well that in general these publicans were sometimes in arrear in their payments, he knew likewise what was very true, that carrying these receipts in his pocket, would forward his design; says he, you see there are three receipts of the same kind; when persons are employed in this way it is necessary they should be careful of what is entrusted to them; he knew perfectly well the whole manner of conducting this business, he knew he could by an artful tale impose on the publicans, and by that defraud the public and the revenue; he knew perfectly well that the Excise office always give receipts with particular caution on the back of the licences, to avoid that he gives it on a distinct piece of paper. (viii)
The judge advised the jury forgery was foremost a crime against the state: first to defraud the King; secondly to defraud Mr Beardmore. (ix) One of 200 offences carrying the death sentence, it more than most reflected a peevish, contemporary obsession with personal property and law. Sutton was sentenced to hang.
While mercy did save William Sutton from the drop it was dumb coincidence and shabby convergence that found him disembarking at Port Jackson in 1790 alongside the Green Park robbers John Turwood and Daniel Chambers, the bullock boys George Connoway, George Lee and Alex Seaton and also Robert Jones, the footpad Sutton had miraculously saved from a rampaging London mob four years previous.
There was bleak honour among the convicts who made it alive to New South Wales on the Second Fleet voyage of 1790. Tendered out privately by the Colonial Office to a notorious ex-slaving firm, the contract stipulated payment based on the number of convicts boarding in Portsmouth, rather than the number who disembarked at journey’s end. This repulsive and inhumane muster saw one in four convicts die en route from malnutrition, sickness or mistreatment. One Captain even sold dead convicts clothes and rations at the Cape of Good Hope stopover. At Port Jackson prisoners too weak to walk were winched ashore by crane.
The shared horror of surviving the voyage bonded the Whitechapel boys more intimately as they disembarked to find Sydney Town the equivalent of a large English village: small farms and mills dotted with occasional sandstone buildings or storage sheds. The fashionable ideal of civic fantasy was still a long way off; there were no colonnaded Greco-Roman reimaginings rising above the dust and uneven dirt roads that snaked effortlessly over the beautiful harbour’s rolling hills. The Whitechapel boys learned quickly that despite its almost unconceivable distance from England, the new settlement had collective resolve, born from surviving near mass starvation after arrival in 1788. After processing in Sydney Town and separation from Robert Jones and Alex Seaton the rest of the group found themselves upriver working on the Government farm at Parramatta, where a productive and vital wheat granary was operating. Essentially a barracks, main house and barns surrounded by thick bush this work-prison without bars proved too much of a temptation for the remaining Whitechapel five. After enlisting fellow inmate and ex-sailor John Watson they stole a punt and made it undetected back to Port Jackson, where they found a small, ocean ready schooner. Dependent on Watson’s sailing experience they tracked the coast north on a light breeze, hoping to cross a sympathetic American whaling ship or more optimistically make it to Tahiti.
Despite Watson’s skill long distance ocean travel proved a harsh reality for the rest of the crew. The phosphorescent excitement of escape was replaced with the stomach-squeezing nausea of seasickness after a southerly storm came up behind them on the second morning. With the masts broken, Watson nursed the vessel into a small but sure harbour entrance about 100 miles north of Sydney. Beached and now marooned, their material wealth now amounted to stolen rations, blankets and some cooking utensils.
THE GANG’S ALL HERE
Natives up and down the coast accepted the increasing number of strange ships passing by the time the Whitechapel crew shambled into Port Stephens in 1790. Some tribes rationalised the translucent-skinned crew people as lost ancestor spirits returned from the other side of living. While unusual for such spirits to reappear with flesh bodies or speaking a strange language, the Port Stephens tribe welcomed the shipwrecked men as disorientated family. One was even taken to a tribal cremation site to help him remember.
The boat mast and sails proved irreparable without European tools while returning to Sydney and likely execution made staying with the Natives the only option. Within twelve months they had gone from London familymen to anonymous convicts to being beloved spirits returned from the afterlife. Incarceration and their London criminal life provided an obtuse but practical preparation for their new reality. They began to immerse themselves in the routine of hunting and nomadic seasonal movement. Linear European time was replaced by strictly co-ordinated rules concerned with complex tribal/hunting boundaries, initiations, seasons and rigid familial relationships for maintaining social cohesion. The Native world taught them care of others while knowing one’s place, in ways more civilised than London life, which cared for no one, but demanded the body and will of all.
William Sutton died a few months after the shipwreck. No mention of how or why this happened to Sutton was ever made public by Watson, Lee, Turwood or Chambers. Having made a life interpreting and manipulating his fellow human beings behind inked forgery and lies, William Sutton disappeared from it as an unregarded secret.
Almost five years after the Whitechapel gang escaped via Port Jackson, the government survey vessel Francis made anchor in Port Stephens to avoid yet another storm. During exploration of the horseshoe beach the team’s surveyor Grimes was forced into firing a single pistol shot after an encounter with spear wielding Natives. These men and young boys dispersed into the bush after muskets were fired strategically over their heads. Back on board discussion centred on those claiming to have seen a distinctly European body running through the bush, which was dismissed as a trick of the light.
Among those consulted back on the vessel was expedition guide and Native consultant John ‘Wild Man’ Wilson. The recalcitrant First Fleet bolter had gained years of unique purpose and reason living among Natives after repeated escapes into the bush. He gained an eccentric legendary status after reappearing from the bush cloaked in kangaroo-skin and tribal chest scarifications. Like the Whitechapel boys, Wilson found acceptance within Native tribes who taught him how to read a sophisticated order to the bush that was beyond mercantile, European thinking. Wilson learned survival through endurance and patience. The ground was a storybook and manual: You followed animal tracks or their shit to find food or maybe watched the darting, zigzag projections of tiny birds to find water. Wilson’s unique new skills helped pay down his every increasing transportation sentence and he was sent out to find or report on other runaways that included a mass ossuary of fifty or so dingo-chewed, calico-draped human skeletons he came across in the hills west of Sydney — some with knifes still locked in tentacled finger-bones. The large group was part of an incessant trend among early runaway convicts convinced that China or a utopian inland sea awaited just beyond the ranges.
Concerned with Grime’s skittish Port Stephens contact, Wilson took responsibility of further landings there. His consultative pigeon-native gained the expedition team certain walking and hunting privileges. On one of these inland tracks they found a campfire where four creole talking white men smiled and welcomed them to share food with their families.
It had been five since the castaways had seen other Europeans: Enough time for a baby to grow into a child, an empire to fall or for five circumnavigations of the globe. If Wilson was of a mind to treat the Whitechapel boys as forgotten history and leave them to their new life, Grimes disagreed. After a distressful and weeping farewell Watson, Chambers, Lee and Turwood left their Native families for the gridded streets, rum, wharfs, musket butts and hewn sandstone authority of Sydney Town — a place they had barely known since being transported over five years ago. Their return coincided with a government crackdown on the opportunistic convict piracy popular at the time. Despite tough new anti-piracy laws, an astonished Governor Hunter pardoned the four men of their original escape and the comprehensive flogging it demanded.
For a time the escapees were celebrated as exotic aliens; half-Calibans returned from the wild. Nothing in Phillips’ original instructions covered their unique cohabitation. It was hoped they might become translators and trekking guides like Wilson, but the Sydney dialects proved too difficult to interpret. They returned to labouring to see out their now extended sentences, but the diet of salted pork, tuber vegetables and rotgut booze bloated their stomachs and shrunk their spirits. They yearned for their adopted tribal life. The ex-sailor Watson and one time green Park robber Chambers — who once swallowed stolen silver coins — both died from complications of the gut.
Two years on in 1797, the remaining Green Park Robber John Turwood and Rag Fair boy George Lee teamed up with a convict-pirate group escaping from Sydney, this time in a well fitted out government boat. The Cumberland and its hijackers were never heard from again despite a formidable chase fleet commanded by John Shortland, those pursuit north included a sighting of the pirates south of Port Stephens; at the mouth of a river Shortland would name after his Governor. Wild Man Wilson also returned to the bush around this time. After a final brief visit to Sydney news came in during 1799 that Wilson had been speared to death after illegally taking possession a young native woman for his ‘exclusive accommodation’. Like the Whitechapel five, John Wilson was to be a Native remembering sung to birds on rustling gum leaves, or as far as that remembering would fly.
[i] National Archives of Australia, Governor Phillip’s Instructions 25 April 1787 (UK), http://foundingdocs.gov.au/resources/transcripts/nsw2_doc_1787.pdf, accessed 11 Nov. 2011.
[ii] OLD BAILEY PROCEEDINGS, Old Bailey Proceedings punishment summary, 30th August (s17860830-1), accessed 11 Nov. 2011.
[iii] Walter Thornbury. “Whitechapel.” Old and New London: Volume 2 (1878): 142-146. British History Online. Web. 30 November 2011. http://www.british-history.ac.uk/report.aspx?compid=45084.
[iv] Old Bailey Proceedings: JAMES GALL, DANIEL CHAMBERS, JOHN TURWOOD, Violent Theft, Highway robbery, 19th July 1786. (t17860719-28), accessed 11 Nov. 2011.
[v] Old Bailey Proceedings: JAMES GALL, DANIEL CHAMBERS, JOHN TURWOOD, Violent Theft, Highway robbery, 19th July 1786. (t17860719-28), accessed 11 Nov. 2011.
[vi] A Dictionary of The English Language 1755. Samuel Johnson. Online Digital Edition (p.1285) http://johnsonsdictionaryonline.com/?page_id=7070&i=1286.
[vii] Old Bailey Proceedings: ROBERT JONES, Theft, grand larceny, 30th August 1786. (t17860830-1), accessed 30 Nov. 2011.
[viii] Old Bailey Proceedings: WILLIAM SUTTON, Deception, forgery, 8th July 1789. (t17890708-7), accessed 11 Nov. 2011.
[ix] Old Bailey Proceedings: WILLIAM SUTTON, Deception, forgery, 8th July 1789. (t17890708-7), accessed 11 Nov. 2011.
David Murray is a university medalist with a Creative Arts Phd from Newcastle Uni. He has published two books of poetry: “Swinging from a broken clock” and “Blue bottle” (Sultana Press), and contributed to Overland, The Australasian Journal of Popular Culture and the Mascara Poetry Journal.
Murray treats historical true crime creatively as a cultural marker of everyday life. It’s a process concentrating on ordinary lives while reflecting Luc Sante’s observation that ‘violence, misery, chicanery, and insanity exist in a continuum that spans history; they prove that there never was a golden age”.