Today (January 20) in London History – the Twins Were Hanged Together

This one’s an invitation to a hanging.


Ok, it’s January 20th. Let’s London Walks January 20th. By that I mean: once again, let’s give the obvious candidates a miss. Instead of displaying the top hats in the window and leaving it at that, let’s get you in the shop, show you a hat that’s not in the window – and then pull a rabbit out of the hat.

Though I do want to mention one thing in passing about January 20th. For some weird reason January 20th isn’t a good date for their majesties, kings and queens and their relatives

A quick run-through:

George V died on January 20th, 1936. His death, incidentally, is a remarkable tale in its own right, but I’ll save that for another time. 

Edward VIII’s accession to the throne was of course the same day, January 20th, 1936. Now Edward VIII had an obsession – he was convinced that his happiness depended on securing the American divorcee Mrs Simpson as his wife. From the day he became King his main preoccupation was to make that happen. He didn’t get his way. Well, he got his American divorcee – but it cost him his crown. 

More bad January 20th news. The trial of King Charles I began on January 20th, 1649.

Queen Victoria’s son-in-law Prince Henry died on January 20th, 1896.

Her sister-in-law died on January 20th, 1852.

And I really like this one, Eadbald, King of Kent, died on January 20, 640. Weird and wonderful connection: in those days – 640 – there were more Cherokee speakers than there were English speakers. Had you been asked in 640 which language would be world dominant in 1500 years, Cherokee would have been a safer bet than English.  

On January 20th 1642 the House of Commons flipped Charles I yet another bird. On January 4th he’d tried to go into the House of Commons to arrest five rabble-rousing Members of Parliament. 

He was hesitant about it, though. His Queen, Henrietta Maria, concentrated his mind. She said, “Go you poltroon. Go and pull those rogues out by the ears, or never see my face again.” So off he went, accompanied by about 400 armed men. 

He entered the precincts of the House with a vanguard of the soldiers. The troops were armed with pistols and swords. The soldiers stayed in the Lobby. Accompanied by his nephew, King Charles entered the Commons Chamber. One of Charles’ retainers propped the door open so the parliamentarians could see the soldiers brandishing their weapons. The five politicians weren’t in the Chamber. They’d fled to the City. Charles asked the Speaker where they were.

The Speaker, William Lenthall, said, “May it please your majesty, I have neither eyes to see nor tongue to speak in this place but as this House is pleased to direct me whose servant I am here; and I humbly beg your majesty’s pardon that I cannot give any other answer than this to what your majesty is pleased to demand of me.”

That was a turning point in English history. It was the first time speaker had declared his allegiance to the liberty of parliament rather than the will of the monarch. 

Charles said, “no matter, my eyes are as good as another’s.” He studied the benches – and then, dejectedly said, “I see all my birds have flown.”

Back to the palace he went, mission not accomplished. The episode turned London against the King. Londoners’ read was, what he had done revealed him as a tyrant. 

And Parliament had the bit between its teeth. 

It asked London to raise a guard for its defence. The very capable Philip Skippon was put in charge of that force. And then just a few days later, yes, January 20th, Parliament also gave him responsibility trained bands in Westminster, Southwark and the suburbs. You can see what’s happening there. Power – real power, the power that finds tangible expression in swords and pistols and muskets – lots of them – is being consolidated. Parliament is flexing its muscles.

And that’s not our last bad day for the crown. The big one – the one I was going to give this podcast over to – was January 20, 1265. That’s Parliament’s birthday – the day what is regarded as the first genuine parliament was convened. That happened at Westminster Hall under the auspices of – wait for it – a Frenchman named Simon de Montfort. Well, let’s keep that one in reserve.

January 20th – bad day, jinxed day for their majesties – but instead of pitching camp there, I think we’ll go to a funeral instead.

Go to a funeral in my favourite church in London, St. Martin in the Fields. In Trafalgar Square.

A very smart funeral. Consecrated in 1726, St. Martin in the Fields was James Gibbs’ masterpiece. They don’t come much tonier than St. Martin in the Fields. George I was a churchwarden. The one and only time a king has held such a post. Mind you, he didn’t perform his parochial chores. He bought himself out by providing an organ for the west gallery in lieu of carrying out his churchwarden duties. 

The London Spy, a contemporary publication, wasn’t behindhand in picking up on the social muzzle loading velocity of the congregation. Here’s how the Spy put it: “The inhabitants are now supplied with a decent tabernacle, which can produce as handsome a show of white hands, diamond rings, pretty snuff boxes, and gilt prayer books as any cathedral whatever. Here the fair penitents pray in their patches, sue for pardon in their paint and see their heaven in man.” Patches will be those black beauty marks beauties affixed to their faces.

Anyway, let’s not linger. Let’s look in on the funeral. It’s held this day, January 20th, 1776.

Very special funeral. Twin brothers. The Perreau brothers.

Now here’s the kicker. The Perreau twins are dead because they were hanged, together, at Tyburn, on January 17th. Their execution, that’s some story. So stay tuned.

We can start tracking them by hearing their surname properly. Perreau. That’s right. They were Huguenots. Third generation Huegenots. Remember, in 1685, France opened its veins. It revoked the Edict of Nantes. The Edict of Nantes was a law that said the Catholic majority could not persecute the Protestant minority. In its wisdom, France revoked the Edict. That was what today would be called a dog whistle. Revoking it meant the catholic minority could persecute the protestant majority. And they did. So the protestants, most of them Huegenots, got out. A lot of them came here. They were wonderful people. Sober, upright, law-abiding, well-educated, skilled, hard-working – perfect citizens. Ideal immigrants. France’s loss was England’s gain. 

So, yes, the first Perreau to come over was the twin’s grandfather.

Their father, Daniel, went to the West Indies in search of his fortune. He became Secretary to the Governor of the Windward Islands. And married the daughter of the Attorney-General of the Islands. They had fourteen children, including the twin boys Daniel and Robert. 

Those twins were the apple of their parents’ eyes, the focus of their hopes. They sent them to England to be ‘instructed in most branches of polite learning.’

In other words, to be gentlemen, to be upper class.

It didn’t quite work out. The twin Robert did very well, but not as well as he wanted to do. He was apprenticed to an apothecary. He worked hard. He was the very model of the industrious apprentice. He rose to near the top of his profession. Earned enough that he had buying power. He dressed well, had an elegant, handsomely furnished house in Harley Street, had a fine family. Most telling of all, he owned a coach – that was the hallmark of social acceptance. 

His brother Daniel was less successful. He was a merchant in Guadeloupe. Had a bankruptcy to his credit. He was spinning his wheels.

In the end, Robert’s slow but steady progress toward serious wasn’t good enough for the twins. They wanted to make real money and they wanted to make it fast. They buying and selling stock on the Exchange – playing the Alley it was called. First step on the slippery slope. Second step was speculating on windfall profits.  

It all went pear-shaped. They lost big on a speculation on a coming war with Spain over the Falkland Islands. They didn’t have the readies to cover what they’d lost. They needed a large amount of money and they needed it fast. It was a double bind. They couldn’t sell their horses and carriages and household belongings because that would be a proclamation that they were in over their heads and all their creditors would overrun their position. They needed to keep up appearances. Go on spending, spending extravagantly – and in the meantime quickly find another source of funds. 

It was maybe inevitable – the Perreau brothers started forging bonds. A pyramid forgery scheme. They were able to make it work for four years. The X-factor in the tale is Daniel’s common-law wife, Margaret Caroline Rudd. When they were caught – when the game was up – the brothers blamed each other, they blamed her, she blamed them. It wasn’t pretty. And in the end she turned state’s evidence. Said she’d testify against her husband and his brother in return for immunity from prosecution. 

Best bet, incidentally, is the three of them were in the scheme together. 

Anyway, in the end the twins were found guilty. They were sentenced to hang. Their last hope was a royal pardon. And there was a tremendous push to secure one. 78 prominent merchants and bankers signed a petition to the king asking that he pardon them. The newspapers were full of letter clamouring for a pardon. No surprise this, in many cases the line the letters pushed was that the twins were dupes to the designs of an artful woman.

It was all for nought. No pardon was forthcoming.

The twins were hanged, at Tyburn, on January 17th, 1776.  

Tyburn gallows was in many ways the biggest show in town but you’d be hard-pressed to name a hanging day that was more remarkable than January 17th, 1776.

The brother were conveyed to Tyburn in a mourning coach. They both wore mourning for the occasion. There were 300 constables there to control the crowd of 40,000 spectators.

When they stepped out of the mourning coach to get into the gallows cart, the brothers bowed respectfully to the sheriffs. Who waved back at them. On the cart, Robert gave the hangman and his assistant some money. You getting the picture? This was a society execution.

The two brothers then kissed each other. It was five minutes past 11. The caps were drawn over their faces. They were arm in arm. Their four hands clasped together. The cart was drawn out from under them. They were launched into eternity holding hands. As a newspaper account put it, the brothers “in the same moment quitted that world which they had entered together.”

There’s no getting around it, it’s that they were brothers and were holding hands. A final touch. Literally and figuratively. A final touch Of comfort and togetherness. 

An eye-witness report said, ‘when they had been turned off about two-thirds of a minute, their hands dropped from each other, and they died without the least apparent pain, amidst the prayers of an immense commiserating multitude.

There are five words there that I don’t believe for a second. Yes, that’s right, the same five words you’ve locked onto:  “without the least apparent pain.”

And that’s the story. No, let’s not leave them hanging there. Their bodies were taken to Robert’s house in Golden Square. Again, for me, this is another one of those London and London Walks moments. I’ll never again be able to take a turn in Golden Square without thinking about the Perreau brothers. Anyway, the coffins were covered with black cloth and nails. On each was a black plate, inscribing their names, the day of their death and their ages (they were 42). They were carried in separate hearses. Their friends were in mourning coaches. The crowd round St Martin in the Fields was so great it was difficult to get the funeral party into the church. The Perreau brothers – twins – men of fashion – forgers – are sleeping the big sleep in that most fashionable of churches, St. Martin in the Fields.

Anything else? How’s this for a coda? Gob-smacked me, this. Margaret Caroline Rudd, courtesan, accused forger, common-law wife of Daniel Perreau, mother of his three children – Margaret Caroline Rudd, the scarlet woman, moved on to become the mistress of the rakish Thomas Lyttleton, second Baron Lyttleton, and then, in the mid-1780s, the mistress of James Boswell, author of the greatest biography in the language, The Life of Samuel Johnson. And that’s three more for me. When I go to Dr Johnson’s house off Fleet Street or to his statue behind St Clement Danes or to 8 Russell Street, Tom Davies’ bookshop where Boswell first met Dr. Johnson, there’ll be an extra bit of richness, like the tiny note sounded by a triangle at a special moment in a symphony. That tiny note will be a wisp of a thought about Boswell taking comfort in the arms of Margaret Caroline Rudd, Daniel Perreau’s widow, not long after Dr Johnson died. An opiate of sorts, I suppose. 

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