September 9, 1776 – the day the United States of America became the United States of America: what happened in London?

London calling.

London Walks connecting.

London Walks here with today’s London fix.

Story time. History time.

Seventy percent. And Five percent. The ocean covers more than 70 percent of the surface of our planet. And about five percent of it has been explored and charted. The rest of it – ninety-five percent of the world ocean – unknown, uncharted, unexplored, unseen by human eyes.

And you can think of London history as a vast and mighty ocean. 95 percent of which is unknown, uncharted, unexplored, unseen by human eyes.

So let’s go where no man has gone before. Let’s explore, let’s chart, let’s get to know, let’s see some London history that hasn’t been seen before.

As I said, it’s vast. Where do we start? Where do we plunge in?

Let’s go with today’s date, September 9th. The history we know is like a series of mountain peaks. Some events – like some mountains – just stand tall. They’re known. They’re remembered. They’ve been explored and charted.

One of those September 9th historical peaks took place in 1776. It was on September 9th, 1776 that the United States of America became the United States of America. It had been called the United Colonies. But on that day, September 9th, 1776, the Second Continental Congress adopted a new name for that brand-new country. It was like naming a baby. That proclamation by the Second Continental Congress made it official. That new country got the name by which it’s been known ever since, The United States of America.

So there, we know that peak. That’s bit of September 9th, 1776 history has been explored, marked out, charted. But if the name the United States of America is the summit of September 9th, 1776, well, I wanted to explore a bit more of that mountain, some of its glaciers and crevasses and foothills that nobody’s seen before.

Especially in connection with London. What happened in London on September 9th, 1776? There’s something that appeals to me about that juxtaposition: the naming ceremony – the christening if you prefer – on the other side of the Atlantic – the very day the United States of America becomes the United States of America – a red letter day in American history – and over against that, some of the small change of history. What went down in London on the day that fairly momentous thing was happening in Philadelphia?

So I did what you do. I positioned the drilling rig on September 9th, 1776 and threw the switch. Drilled down.

I drilled down by looking at the newspapers for September 10th, 1776. Figured they’d be running at least a few stories about what happened on September 9th.

And sure enough, such was the case.

And pretty run-of-the-mill stuff it was. For example, there was a bad fire on a ship from Ireland, lying below Execution Dock. The fire, we learn from the Daily Advertiser, did a great deal of damage to the ship and the cargo.

And then there was the desperately sad business in Putney Reach. A heavily loaded gardener’s boat, was coming down the river from Richmond. It capsized in Putney Reach, owing to the waterman carrying too much sail. A woman and a boy were drowned.

But the headline grabber was a crime story. September 9, 1776 was a Monday. Three days previously, Friday night, September 6th, 1776 the Lord Mayor of London had been set upon and robbed by three highwaymen near Turnham Green. It seems that those three highwaymen had for some time, in the words of the newspaper,  infested the roads about Turnham Green. Their robbing the Lord Mayor was the last straw. The magistrate Sir John Field, the blind half-brother of Henry Fielding, the author of Tom Jones, took the matter in hand. Henry Fielding and his blind brother John had created the Bow Street runners, the forerunners of the modern police force. Blind John Fielding was a force to be reckoned with. He was said to be able to identify 3,000 London thieves by the sound of their voices. The Fielding brothers created a fledgling police force. And they used informers.

And an informer came across in the case of the Turnham Green Highwaymen. Acting on the tip, early on the morning of the 9th, some of Sir John Fielding’s men had burst into a house near Turnham Green, rudely awakened the three suspects, hauled them out of bed, and took them into town for questioning. For his part, the Lord Mayor supplied an exact description of the Highwaymen. The three would get their day in court the very next day. With the informer chipping in to do his bit – in the words of the newspaper, the informer said he could ‘swear to the highwayman.’ In return of course for a fee.

And sure enough, the three appeared before Sir John Fielding at what was called the Public Office in Bow Street. From that first court appearance we get names. And we get evidence. The three accused were Thomas Warburton Harrison, John Harding and Charles Fraime. Some of the evidence, well, in the room where they were so rudely awakened, Fielding’s men found pistols, two large leaden balls with cords ran through them – yes, I’m as puzzled by that as you are, I haven’t a clue what those corded leaden balls were in aid of. In addition, the magistrate’s men found upwards of 200 picklock keys and chisels. Fairly incriminating, I’d say.

Well, I thought, hmmm, let’s follow this trail. Let’s see how this plays out. In a different publication, the British Chronicle, six weeks later, we get something of a wrap, a summation of that session’s criminal proceedings, a score sheet as it were. We learn that 18 convicts – I’m quoting now – received judgement of death, five were ordered to be kept to hard labour in raising sand, gravel, etc. and from and clearing the river Thames, eight were committed to the House of Correction to be kept to hard labour, seven ordered to be imprisoned in Newgate, eight were branded in the hand, four ordered to be whipped, and 22 discharged by proclamation.

And that brings us to what a newspaper describes as the melancholy procession to the gallows. Execution date was December 11th. So they didn’t tarry. John Harding, who paid the ultimate price, committed his crime on September 6th. He was arrested on September 9th. His trial began a day or two later. And in less than three months he swings. None of this 20th and 21st century very American business of being on Death Row for twenty years or more. The Georgians got on with it.

But let’s take survey of that melancholy procession. Eight convicts in all were, as the newspaper put it, ‘the unhappy persons destined to suffer the utmost severity of the law. Early in the morning, the malefactors were attended by the clergymen, who usually assist on these melancholy occasions, together with a few of their select friends. The Devotions of the morning being ended, the melancholy procession moved forward at half past nine o’clock in the following order: A possee of constables, sheriffs Officers on horseback, dressed in mourning; the Under Sheriff, with his wand of office; the first Cart, hung with black, containing three of the prisoners; the second cart with two prisoners; a mourning coach, with prisoner Davis, attended by a clergyman, a friend, and Mr Armstrong, the sheriffs officer. Mr Davis was in a new suit of deep mourning, and seemed perfectly resigned to the rigour of his fate. Next followed the coiners in a sledge, sitting side by side, a clergyman kneeling and praying before them, and the executioner sitting at the end of the sledge. In this manner, slow and solemn, moved the cavalcade and reached the fatal spot at 25 minutes before eleven, amidst immense crowds of commiserating spectators. During the procession, Harding gave away above 500 hand-bills, all in his own handwriting, of which the following is an exact copy. Gentleman, Hear the words of a dying man. i beg leave to acquaint you that Mr. Hall has swore very false against me to take my life. John Harding.

On arrival at the place of execution, the prisoners were tied up and the devotions gone through in the usual manner.

At a quarter past eleven the sufferers (now sufferers no longer) were launched into eternity, amidst the tears and groans of more than 20,000 spectators. The two brothers White, bore so perfect a resemblance to each other that they were universally thought to be twins.

May the fate of the above unhappy men impress on the minds of such as may hereafter be in circumstances of life similar to them, that rigid honesty is the truest policy. That intentional innocence cannot save, when the rights of society are invaded; and that bread and water, with peace of mind, are preferable to any possessions obtained by illicit means.

What an extraordinary scene. But to it, you have to add this. It’s jaw-dropping, really. The chaos, the mayhem of Georgian London. We learn from that nearly 250-year-old newspaper account that – here I’m quoting again – “as the above prisoners were coming out of Newgate, two persons had each a leg broke by a kick from a horse in one of the carriages; and while the crowd surrounded the gallows, two droves of oxen ran in among the concourse, by which several persons were dangerously wounded.

And to top it all, press gangs got to work even as the eight executed men had their first brush with eternity. In the words of the paper, ‘soon after the men were turned off, a press gang picked up nine persons in one place, and eleven in another.’

1770s London. You go to Tyburn to watch an execution and just like that you’re in the navy. Against your will. In effect you’ve been kidnapped and there’s nothing you can do about it.

Georgian London. What do you think? I’m guessing you’d maybe be willing to go for a short visit. But I’ll bet you’d want no part of a one-way ticket.

You’ve been listening to the London Calling podcast. Emanating from – home of London Walks, London’s signature walking tour company. London’s local, time-honoured, fiercely independent, family-owned, just-the-right-size walking tour company. And as long as we’re at it, London’s multi-award-winning walking tour company. Indeed, London’s only award-winning walking tour company.

And here’s the secret: London Walks is essentially run as a guides’ cooperative.

That’s the key to everything. It’s the reason we’re able to attract and keep the best guides in London. You can get schlubbers to do this for peanuts – for McDonald’s wages. But you cannot get world-class guides – let alone accomplished professionals.

It’s not rocket science: you get what you pay for. And just as surely, you also get what you don’t pay for.

Back in 1968 when we got started we quickly came to a fork in the road. We had to answer a searching question: Do we want to make the most money? Or do we want to be the best walking tour company in the world? You want to make the most money you go the schlubbers route. You want to be the best walking tour company in the world you do whatever you have to do to attract and keep the best guides in London – you want them guiding for you, not for somebody else. Bears repeating: the way we’re structured – a guides’ cooperative – is the key to the whole thing. It’s the reason for all those awards, it’s the reason people who know go with London Walks, it’s the reason we’ve got a big following, a lively, loyal, discerning following – quality attracts quality.

It’s the reason we’re able – uniquely –

to front our walks with distinguished


By way of example,

Stewart Purvis, the former Editor (and

subsequently CEO) of Independent

Television News. And Lisa Honan

who had a distinguished career as

diplomat (Lisa was the Governor of

St Helena, the island where Napoleon

breathed his last and, some say, had

his penis amputated – Napoleon

didn’t feel a thing – if thing’s the mot

juste – he was dead.)

Stewart and Lisa – both of them

CBEs – are just a couple of our

headline acts.

The London Walks All-Star team of

guides includes a former London

Mayor, it includes barristers (one of

them an MBE); it includes doctors,

geologists, museum curators,

archaeologists, historians, criminal

defence lawyers, university professors,

Royal Shakespeare Company actors,

a bevy of MVPs,

Oscar winners (people who’ve won

the big one, the Guide of the Year Award)… well,

you get the idea. As that travel writer

famously put it, “if this were a golf

tournament, every name on the

Leader Board would be a London

Walks guide.”

And as we put it: London Walks Guides make the new familiar and the familiar new.

And on that agreeable note…come then, let us go forward together on some great London Walks.

And that’s by way of saying, Good Londoning one and all. See ya next time.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *