On Monday 13 January 1817, John Freeman, an elderly grocer from Harpenden, set out for London to buy provisions for his business. He drove his cart across Harpenden Common and on through St Albans to join the Great North Road, which led directly to Barnet and on to Smithfield, a busy main route for coaches and stage wagons carrying food to and from the markets in the capital. It was a cold, cloudy day with the midday temperature rising to little more than 40 degrees. December had been stormy with heavy rainfall, so the journey to London was slow and John Freeman spent many uncomfortable hours on his wooden cart, shaken over the rutted and muddy highways.
His business in London completed, he set off on the return journey, his cart loaded with sides of bacon, cheeses, oatmeal, sugar and other provisions. He reached the hamlet of Whetstone near Barnet, but a short distance from the Bull and Butcher Inn his cart overturned, spilling its contents onto the road. It was after ten o’clock at night but several people came to help him and he rewarded them for their trouble. While they went into the inn, he drove his cart into the inn yard and then took a bed for the night.
At six o’clock the following morning, he checked his load and discovered items were missing – 120 lbs of bacon, 80 lbs of cheese and a bushel of oatmeal. He sent for the patrol and Nathan Jackson, an officer attached to the Bow Street Runners, arrived a little before eight o’clock. Together they went into the Bull and Butcher and searched the premises. In the stable they found some paper, which John Freeman thought had been used to wrap his sugar. A horse-keeper named John Hutchinson was at work there and disclosed information which led them to William Ashwell’s house, about a quarter of a mile away. Ashwell was not at home but they found two sides of bacon, three cheeses, and a bag of oatmeal. They then went to Richard Fox’s house and found another side of bacon under his mattress, a cheese with a piece cut out of it under his bed and more oatmeal. Ashwell and Fox were arrested, together with two other men, George Beech and James Johnston.
On 19 February John Freeman made the journey from Harpenden to London again, this time to the central criminal court at the Old Bailey to give evidence against the four prisoners, who were charged with grand larceny. His property was valued at £3 for 120 lbs of bacon; £1.18 shillings for 80 lbs of cheese; and 13 shillings for one bushel of oatmeal, a sizeable haul at that time for men earning meagre wages.
The case for the prosecution
After John Freeman had given his account of the events of 13 January, Nathan Jackson told the court:
‘The night before this, I had seen Hutchinson, Ashwell, Johnson, and Beech in company at the Bull and Butcher, about twelve o’clock. I heard Ashwell say, ‘We will go down to the Bull yard and see what is to be done with the old cheeseman, and see if there is any bacon or cheese to be had.’ Fox was not with them.’
John Rice, another officer of the Bow Street patrol, who was with Jackson that night, confirmed this.
Hutchinson, the horse-keeper at the Bull and Butcher, was involved in the crime, but turned king’s evidence against the four accused:
‘When the cart broke down, I, with Ashwell, Beech, and Johnston, helped put the goods in again. I was with them at twelve o’clock, and Ashwell said he would go down to the Bull, and see the old cheeseman, and have some beer. I went there with him, Beech and Johnston. We had some beer, and when we came out, we went to the gates to see if we could get round to Freeman’s cart. Ashwell, Beech, Johnson and I went to the gates, and Beech lifted me up. I got over the gate, and unfastened it, let them in, and shut it again. We all went in and each loaded himself with what he liked. We took three sides of bacon, four cheeses, and a bag of seeds, and brought them to my stables. One piece of bacon, one cheese and some oatmeal, were left for me; they said they would take the rest to Ashwell’s house. About five o’clock in the morning, I took my share to Fox’s house. I knocked at the door, he got up. He was not with us the night before. I told him they came from an old man’s cart, which had been overturned by the Bull and Butcher, and that I had fetched them from the inn yard. I told him, if he would take care of them, he should have half for his trouble. He said he would. I left the bacon against the bed, and stood the cheese against the wall. I breakfasted with him and went to my work. The officer took me up, and I told him about it.’
The accused were cross-examined but they had little to say and the jury found them all guilty. Ashwell and Beech, aged 20, and Johnston, aged 18, were sentenced to transportation for seven years. Fox, aged 21, was found guilty of receiving and sentenced to transportation for fourteen years. John Hutchinson, by turning king’s evidence, escaped transportation and may have been sentenced more leniently in another court.
John Freeman drove his cart home to Harpenden to continue working in his business, while the four young men who had tried to take advantage of him were sent to await transportation. On 24 July, Richard Fox was taken from Middlesex Gaol to be transported on the ‘Larkins’. He arrived at the penal colony in New South Wales in Australia on 22 November 1817.
William Ashwell petitioned and was recommended for a mitigated sentence on the ‘Bellerophon’ convict hulk.
Known as the “Billy Ruffian”, the Bellerophon was the battleship on which Napoleon finally surrendered, ending 22 years of war with France. In 1815 it was paid off and converted to a prison ship.
Charles Dupin visited the hulk in 1816 and made the following observations about the conditions:
‘I visited the famous ship the Bellerophon, which lay near the arsenal, transformed into a hulk for convicts, who, instead of being sent to Botany Bay, are employed on those works. In the conduct and arrangement of this hulk, everything has been adopted that the most refined humanity could suggest to render a floating prison supportable and even comfortable to its inmates. The convicts are lodged in little cabins, having large port-holes, closed with iron-gratings, which admit a sufficient quantity of air. The partitions of the chambers or cabins are formed of iron railings, at intervals, and are covered with simple curtains, which are drawn aside at certain times of the day to let a free air through the different apartments. To each chamber is attached a privy, constructed beyond the side of the vessel, and yet so built as to prevent all possibility of escaping by it. Let not these details disgust our false delicacy. I appeal to those who have languished in ordinary prisons, to decide on what renders existence in them supportable or insupportable. On Sundays and holidays the convicts are collected together in a neat chapel, constructed at the foot of the mizen-mast, where it occupies the space between deck.’
Ashwell served his sentence there.
Nothing is currently known about Beech and Johnston.
Meteorological Table: Nichols, John, The Gentleman’s Magazine, London,
Jan – June 1817, Vol LXXXVII (original from University of California), onlinebooks.library.
Old Bailey Proceedings Online (www.oldbaileyonline.org, version 7.2, 27 October 2015), February 1817, trial of WILLIAM ASHWELL GEORGE BEECH JAMES JOHNSTON RICHARD FOX (t18170219-132).
Richard Fox, www.convictrecords.com.au/ships/larkins/1817
Charles Dupin, Memoire presented to the Academy of Sciences of the French Institute in 1818 – ‘Brief Account of the First Journey in England in 1816 made by M. Charles Dupin, for the purpose of visiting the British Ports, Docks and other Public Works’,