Today (November 27) in London History – Hanged for a Misdemeanour

Hanged for shoplifting on this day – November 27th, 1827. The last person to be hanged for shoplifting. Or was he? This Today in London History podcast sets the record straight.


London calling.

London Walks connecting.

London Walks here with your daily London fix.

Story time. History time.

Well, this one’s been a bit of an education. 

The date’s right, the crime’s not.

And because it’s not the story loses some of its pungency. But I think we can probably patch things up. Somewhat anyway. And in any case, it’s important to set the record straight.

The date is November 27th, 1827. 

The location is outside Newgate prison.

All eyes are on a young man named William Reading. He’s 26 years old.

He won’t be around for his next birthday. He won’t even be around for tomorrow.

He’s about to be hanged.

For shoplifting. Or so we’re told. There’s quite a bit of piquancy to the tale. The condemned man is very young. And to be hanged for a misdemeanour like shoplifting. Ok, shoplifting isn’t the most minor of crimes – they’re infractions, like jaywalking. But shoplifting is pretty far down the scale of criminality. And so to hang for it… well, in the immortal words of John McEnroe, you can’t be serious. The punishment doesn’t remotely fit the crime. That’s two piquancies. The third is that William Reading is the last person to be hanged for shoplifting. 

And that, I’m afraid, is where the bucking bronco gets shot of the cowboy.

There are maybe half a dozen instances of that line being promulgated on the internet. I picked up on it. Nostrils twitching – I am after all a retired journalist – I thought, “oh, that’s a good story, I could run that up for November 27th in the Today in London History podcast.” But it’s way too threadbare. Story needs fleshing out. Gotta find out a bit more about William Reading and his crime.

So the hunt was on. Bugger secondary sources says the old academic in me. I’m going to unearth the primary sources. So I went to the Proceedings of the Old Bailey. The Old Bailey was of course London’s central criminal court for nearly 250 years. 

And sure enough, adduce the primary sources and pop goes the weasel – the shoplifting claim falls apart like a bad alibi.

William Reading was tried at Newgate on September 11th, 1822. But he wasn’t tried for shoplifting. He was tried for housebreaking and theft. Some pretty serious theft.

Tried and found guilty.

He’d broken into and entered the dwelling house of one Robert Westwood at about 4 o’clock in the afternoon on Sunday, July 28th. Robert Westwood was a jeweller. He lived in Prince’s Street in the parish of St Ann in Soho. No one was home at the time. Westwood had left his house about noon. The door was double-locked. There was the additional reinforcement of a bar that came down by the lock. That was also in place. When he returned to his house at about 8.30 that evening the door was in single lock, the bar was lying on the floor, and all the glass cases were opened and emptied. About 200 watches had been taken. That was for starters. The thief had also taken some 30 seals, a great number of gold pins and gold earrings, coral earrings and necklaces, silver thimbles, spoons and pencil cases, six sovereigns, a £10 note and £3 in silver. Basically, William Reading cleaned him out. 

The 200 watches were worth £600. Add another £20 for the ten watch chains that had gone into the bag of swag. And £10 for the 30 seals. And so on. It was breaking and entering and big time theft. Shoplifting it wasn’t.

The perp didn’t get far. William Reading was picked up the next day in Marlborough Street, just a couple of streets over. He had some sovereigns on his person. Bad luck for William Reading, Robert Westwood marked his sovereigns. Those marked sovereigns were the ones on William Reading’s person. 

And there were eyewitnesses who saw Reading over the way from the Westwood property shortly before the crime was committed.

Reading said: “There is a woman who can prove that a tall thin man came out of the house.”

The Jury said: Guilty.

The Judge said: Death. By hanging.

It was a black-and-white world, the world of crime and punishment in bygone London. Literally so in the matter of the judge donning the black cap prior to pronouncing the death sentence. That judicial black cap was weirdly balanced out by the condemned being fitted out on the gallows with a white cap. And then, come 1868, when public, outdoor hangings in front of Newgate ended, executions were still spectator events – vicariously so. Huge crowds would gather in front of Newgate on the morning of an execution to hear the tolling of the bells at St Sepulchre’s over the way. That was the announcement that the execution was imminent. And then the crowd would wait expectantly – wait to see the black flag run up the flag pole on Newgate. That bit of theatre – if I can call it that – that black flag being run up the flag pole – announced that the deed had been done, the earthly career of the condemned was no more. 

Taking the breezily confident internet assurances as gospel that William Reading was the last person to be hanged for shoplifting – that was my starting point – I wanted to see what people were still being hanged for in that decade. I came across an 1827 newspaper account of four Newgate hangings on November 26th that year. The condemned were 40-year-old John Keaton. His offence was highway robbery. He got 18 shillings and four pence and a death sentence for his troubles. And 40-year-old Edward Lowe. He was hanged for coining. 

This podcast serves up a couple of takeaways. One of them is right at the end. Has to do with the executioner, the hangman.

The other one’s affixed to the last moments of Edward Lowe, the 40-year-old coiner. Has to do with the dead man’s walk – that last walk of the condemned, from Newgate to the gallows. Edward Lowe’s three fellow travellers walked that walk. Edward Lowe didn’t. He was dragged out of Newgate and up to the gallows on a sledge. Floored me, that. Well, I guess Edward Lowe was floored as well. Had me scratching my head. What was that all about? Was he so terrified he collapsed, couldn’t walk, had to be dragged to the gallows? That was my first thought. But I was wrong. Being dragged to the gallows on a sledge was part of his sentence. It was part of his sentence for his crime of coining. And the explanation? Well, if you committed high treason – and high treason, remember, is disloyalty to the crown – being dragged on a sledge to your execution spot was part of the punishment. And how was it that Edward Lowe had committed high treason? 

Well, the king’s image was on the false coins that Edward Lowe had coined. Basically the law conflated the king’s person with the king’s image. And the sledge dragging, well, that was a two-sided punishment. Being upright and walking, that showed some dignity. Being dragged on a sledge denied you that last bit of dignity. It was a way of saying, you were the lowest of the low. Everybody looked down on you. And then there was the filth of the London streets, the excrement, the dirt, the rubbish – it was in your face, in your nostrils, you were right down in there with it, part of that sheer filth. 

It floored me – that verb again – when I worked it out. How resourceful were they – they thought of everything. Anything that even at a stretch could be construed as disloyalty to the crown, it wouldn’t just get you hanged, for good measure it’d get you dragged through those filthy streets like a bag of manure.

And meanwhile, we’ve got two other very nervous men waiting their turn on the gallows. Two very young men.

23-year-old John Powell, a shopman, was hanged for stealing 10 pounds and 19 shillings worth of Genoa satin from his employer. Though the investigators did find an additional 100 pounds worth of stolen goods in his lodgings, stolen goods that must have been light-fingered, over a period of months, from his employer. John Powell was said to be living way beyond his means. His extensive depredations pretty much accounted for the gap between his limited income and his impressive spending power.

Finally, the youngster, Charles Smith. His crime was also highway robbery. He robbed Francis Jones in Honey-lane Market. Separated him from his watch and seals. Can’t have been worth all that much – certainly not worth a 21-year-old risking his life. That said, the Times, in its inimitable prose, said, “there is much reason to believe he has been walking in the paths of vice for a long time.” Well, the poor kid. His last walk was out of Newgate to the gallows. His return journey, well, he would have been carried. To be buried. In Newgate.

This was London right about the time when my man, Charles Dickens, came here as a youngster.

But when I found out that William Reading wasn’t hanged for shoplifting, that was a loose end. Back I went to The Proceedings of the Old Bailey. Wanted to see what was a matter of hard fact, a matter of record about that crime, that misdemeanour, and people paying the ultimate price for having committed that crime.

There are literally dozens of cases, on record, of people who were hanged for shoplifting. The last one was Mary Green. She was 39 years old. Mary Green was hanged on October 20th, 1820. She’d stolen – shoplifted – a shawl from a linen draper named John Pincott. His shop was in Oxford Street. His assistant, one John Austin, saw Mary Green in the shop. Saw her leave the shop. He went to the window and saw there was a shawl missing. He followed Mary Green to the Union public house. He said, “I went up to her, she had her apron up. I asked what she had in it. She said something, I do not recollect what. I pulled her apron down and found a gown in it and under the gown was this shawl, which I know to be my master’s. I had placed it in the window twice that morning. It has our mark on it.

In her defence, the prisoner, 39-year-old Mary Green, said, “I went to the pawnbroker’s, and as I returned, I saw this shawl on the ground, and picked it up. I went into the public house out of the rain, when he took hold of me.”

The Judge said: Guilty. Death.

The shawl was worth 3 pounds.

Sobering stuff isn’t it. To wind down from it, how about going for a drink in the bar of the Courthouse Hotel – yes, it’s a converted courthouse. In Marlborough Street. In Soho. Marlborough Street, you’ll recall, was where William Reading was picked up. 

I don’t know if there’s anything much in the way of closure – that cant word – we can arrive at. If I were religious I’d say, I’d like to send up a little prayer for all of them, the condemned, their victims, and indeed the officers of the law. Maybe a special prayer for Mary Green. How terrified she must have been. And you know something, a special prayer as well, for the instruments of the law. The prosecution, the witnesses for the prosecution, the judges, the hangman. Mary Green and William Reading and the others had to die; the judge, the hangman, the lawyers, the witnesses, etc. had to live with the part they’d played in those deaths. The takeaway that haunts me more than any other from this huge swath of London history is that very often the hangman had to be locked up in Newgate the night before an execution. He had to be locked up because that was the only way of making sure he didn’t get paralytic with drink at the prospect of what he was going to have to do on the morrow. And make a bad job of it.

Make a bad job of a bad job.

Good night from London. Well not quite good night. Here comes the little official sign-off. 

You’ve been listening to the Today in London History 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 £20 a walk. 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 accomplished, in many cases distinguished professionals: barristers, doctors, geologists, museum curators, archaeologists, historians, criminal defence lawyers, Royal Shakespeare Company actors, a bevy of MVPs, Oscar winners (people who’ve won 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. See ya tomorrow.

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