The Life of Charles Towers, a Minter in Wapping

Of all the sanctuaries, Wapping Mint, also known as the New Mint, was the most audacious and the shortest lived. Set up by refugees from Southwark Mint after the act of 1722, the claim for being a sanctuary was based on being, as with Southwark, the former site of a Royal Mint. Its inhabitants appear to have been more aggressive towards bailiffs than with other sanctuaries, raiding their lock ups to rescue comrades, abducting the bailiffs responsible and trying them in mock courts. Perhaps on account of this it lasted just two years until being abolished by the law of 1724.

The following account, somewhat more pompous than others of the genre, is taken from Lives of the most remarkable criminals volume 1, first published in the 1740s. After giving a short history of the sanctuaries and some tantalizing details of Minter practices , it describes the acts of the Wapping Minter Charles Towers, executed for going in disguise on a raid to free a compatriot.

There is some doubt as to the law under which Towers was found guilty and sentenced to death. This text explicitly states that it was under the notoriously severe ‘Black Act’, passed in 1723 against the poachers and deer stealers of Windsor and Hampshire. E.P. Thompson, in Whigs and Hunters pages 247 to 249, debates this, saying that it was more likely to have been the law against Southwark Mint, which also criminalized going in disguise. However, the latter act didn’t make the crime capital. Yet the Black Act, comprehensive as it was, was fundamentally about securing rural property, and doesn’t seem easily applicable to urban conditions. There is a lot more to investigate here.

Unlike much of the popular criminal literature, the executed man does not go quietly to his death, but fulminates against bailiffs and his sentence on the scaffold. As with Francis Winter, he doubted the justice of his execution. And as with Winter, his death was lamented by a large crowd.

Text courtesy of Project Gutenberg from the 1927 edition. An earlier version (from 1874) is available at archive.org.

The Life of Charles Towers, a Minter in Wapping

Notwithstanding it must be apparent, even to a very ordinary understanding, that the Law must be executed both in civil and criminal cases, and that without such execution those who live under its protection would be very unsafe, yet it happens so that those who feel the smart of its judgment (though drawn upon them by their own misdeeds, follies or misfortunes which the Law of man cannot remedy or prevent) are always clamouring against its supposed severity, and making dreadful complaints of the hardships they from thence sustain. This disposition hath engaged numbers under these unhappy circumstances to attempt screening themselves from the rigour of the laws by sheltering in certain places, where by virtue of their own authority, or rather necessities, they set up a right of exemption and endeavour to establish a power of preserving those who live within certain limits from being prosecuted according to the usual course of the Law.

Anciently, indeed, there were several sanctuaries which depended on the Roman Catholic religion, and which were, of course, destroyed when popery was done away by Law. However, those who had sheltered themselves in them kept up such exemption, and by force withstood whatever civil officers attempted to execute process for debt, and that so vigorously that at length they seemed to have established by prescription what was directly against Law. These pretended privileged places increased at last to such an extent that in the ninth year of King William, the legislature was obliged to make provision by a clause in an Act of Parliament, requiring the sheriffs of London, Middlesex, and Surrey, the head bailiff of the Dutchy Liberty, or the bailiff of Surrey, under the penalty of one hundred pounds, to execute with the assistance of the posse comitatus any writ or warrant directed to them for seizing any person within any pretended privilege place such as Whitefriars, the Savoy, Salisbury Court, Ram Alley, Mitre Court, Fuller’s Rents, Baldwin’s Gardens, Montague Close or the Minories, Mint, Clink, or Dead Man’s Place. At the same time they ordered the assistance for executing the Law, of any who obey the sheriff or other person or persons in such places as aforesaid, with very great penalties upon persons who attempt to rescue persons from the hands of justice in such place.

This law had a very good effect with respect to all places excepting those within the jurisdiction of the Mint, though not without some struggle. There, however, they still continued to keep up those privileges they had assumed, and accordingly did maintain them by so far misusing persons who attempted to execute processes amongst them, by ducking them in ditches, dragging them through privies or “lay stalls,” accompanied by a number of people dressed up in frightful habits, who were summoned upon blowing a horn. All which at last became so very great a grievance that the legislature was again forced to interpose, and by an act of the 9th of the late King, the Mint, as it was commonly called, situated in the parish of St. George’s, Southwark, in the county of Surrey, was taken away, and the punishment of transportation, and even death, inflicted upon such who should persist in maintaining there pretended privileges.

Yet so far did the Government extend its mercy, as to suffer all those who at the time of passing the Act were actually shelterers in the Mint (provided that they made a just discovery of their effects) to be discharged from any imprisonment of their persons for any debts contracted before that time. By this Act of Parliament, the privilege of the Mint was totally taken away and destroyed.

The persons who had so many years supported themselves therein were dissipated and dispersed. But many of them got again into debt, and associating themselves with other persons in the same condition, with unparalleled impudence they attempted to set up (towards Wapping) a new privileged jurisdiction under the title of the Seven Cities of Refuge. In this attempt they were much furthered and directed by one Major Santloe, formerly a Justice of Peace, but being turned out of commission, he came first a shelterer here, and afterwards a prisoner in the Fleet. These people made an addition to these laws which had formerly been established in such illegal sanctuaries, for they provided large books in which they entered the names of persons who entered into their association, swearing to defend one another against all bailiffs and such like. In consequence of which, they very often rescued prisoners out of custody, or even entered the houses of officers for that purposes. Amongst the number of these unhappy people, who by protecting themselves against the lesser judgments of the Law involved themselves in greater difficulties, and at last drew on the greatest and most heavy sentence which it could pronounce, was him we now speak of.

Charles Towers was a person whose circumstances had been bad for many years, and in order to retrieve them he had turned gamester. For a guinea or two, it seems, he engaged for the payment of a very considerable debt for a friend, who not paying it at his time, Towers was obliged to fly for shelter into the Old Mint, then in being. He went into the New, which was just then setting up, and where the Shelterers took upon them to act more licentiously and with greater outrages towards officers of Justice than the people in any other places had done. Particularly they erected a tribunal on which a person chosen for that purpose sat as a judge with great state and solemnity. When any bailiff had attempted to arrest persons within the limits which they assumed for their jurisdiction, he was seized immediately by a mob of their own people, and hurried before the judge of their own choosing. There a sort of charge or indictment was preferred against him, for attempting to disturb the peace of the Shelterers within the jurisdiction of the Seven Cities of Refuge. Then they examined certain witnesses to prove this, and thereupon pretending to convict such bailiff as a criminal, he was sentenced by their judge aforesaid to be whipped or otherwise punished as he thought fit, which was executed frequently in the most cruel and barbarous manner, by dragging him through ditches and other nasty places, tearing his clothes off his back, and even endangering his life.

One West, who had got amongst them, being arrested by John Errington, who carried him to his house by Wapping Wall, the Shelterers in the New Mint no sooner heard thereof, but assembling on a Sunday morning in a great number, with guns, swords, staves, and other offensive weapons, they went to the house of the said John Errington, and there terrifying and affrighting the persons in the house rescued John West, pursuant, as they said, to their oaths, he being registered as a protected person in their books of the Seven Cities of Refuge. In this expedition Charles Towers was very forward, being dressed with only a blue pea-jacket, without hat, wig or shirt, with a large stick like a quarter-staff in his hand, his face and breast being so blackened that it appeared to be done with soot and grease, contrary to the Statute made against those called The Waltham Blacks, and done after the first day of June, 1723, when that Statute took place.

Upon an indictment for this, the fact being very fully and dearly proved, notwithstanding his defence, which was that he was no more disguised than his necessity obliged him to be, not having wherewith to provide himself clothes, and his face perhaps dirty and daubed with mud, the jury found him guilty, and he thereupon received sentence of death.

Before the execution of that sentence, he insisted strenuously on his innocence as to the point on which he was found guilty and condemned, viz., having his face blacked and disguised within the intent and meaning of the Statute, but he readily acknowledged that he had been often present and assisted at such mock courts of justice as were held in the New Mint, though he absolutely denied sitting as judge when one Mr. Westwood, a bailiff, was most abominably abused by an order of that pretended court. He seemed fully sensible of the ills and injuries he had committed by being concerned amongst such people, but often said that he thought the bailiffs had sufficiently revenged themselves by the cruel treatment they had used the riotous persons with, when they fell within their power, particularly since they hacked and chopped a carpenter’s right arm in such a manner that it was obliged to be cut off; had abused others in so terrible a degree that they were not able to work, or do anything for their living. He himself had received several large cuts over the head, which though received six weeks before, yet were in a very bad condition at the time of his death.

As to disguises, he constantly averred they were never practised in the New Mint. He owned they had had some masquerades amongst them, to which himself amongst others had gone in the dress of a miller, and his face all covered with white, but as to any blacking or other means to prevent his face being known when he rescued West he had none, but on the contrary was in his usual habit as all the rest were that accompanied him. He framed as well as he could a petition for mercy, setting forth the circumstances of the thing, and the hardship he conceived it to be to suffer upon the bare construction of an Act of Parliament. He set forth likewise, the miserable condition of his wife and two children already, she being also big of a third. This petition she presented to his Majesty at the Council Chamber door, but the necessity there was of preventing such combinations for obstructing justice, rendered it of no effect. Upon her return, and Towers being acquainted with the result, he said he was contented, that he went willingly into a land of quiet from a world so troublesome and so tormenting as this had been to him. Then he kneeled down and prayed with great fervency and devotion, after which he appeared very composed and showed no rage against the prosecutor and witnesses who had brought on his death, as is too often the case with men in his miserable condition.

On the day appointed for his execution, he was carried in a cart to a gallows whereon he was to suffer in Wapping, the crowd, as is not common on such occasions, lamenting him, and pouring down showers of tears, he himself behaving with great calmness and intrepidity. After prayers had been said, he stood up in the cart, and turning towards the people, professed his innocence in being in a disguise at the time of rescuing Mr. West, and with the strongest asserverations said that it was Captain Buckland and not himself who sat as judge upon Mr. Jones the bailiff, though, as he complained, he had been ill-used while he remained a prisoner upon that score. To this he added that for the robberies and thefts with which he was charged, they were falsities, as he was a dying man. Money indeed, be said, might be shaken out of the breeches pocket of the bailiff when he was ditched, but that whether it was or was not so, he was no judge, for he never saw any of it. That as to any design of breaking open Sir Isaac Tilliard’s house, he was innocent of that also. In fine, he owned that the judgment of God was exceeding just for the many offences he committed, but that the sentence of the Law was too severe, because, as he understood it, he had done nothing culpable within the intent of the Statute on which he died. After this, he inveighed for some time against bailiffs, and then crying with vehemency to God to receive his spirit, he gave up the ghost on the 4th of January, 1724-5.

However the death of Towers might prevent people committing such acts as breaking open the houses of bailiffs, and setting prisoners at liberty, yet it did not quite stifle or destroy those attempts which necessitous people made for screening themselves from public justice, insomuch that the Government were obliged at last to cause a Bill to be brought into Parliament for the preventing such attempts for the future, whereupon in the 11th year of the late King, it passed into a law to this effect:

That if any number of persons not less than three, associate themselves together in the hamlet of Wapping, Stepney, or in any other place within the bills of mortality, in order to shelter themselves from their debts, after complaint made thereof by presentment of a grand jury, and should obstruct any officer legally empowered and authorised in the execution of any writ or warrant against any person whatsoever, and in such obstructing or hindering should hurt, wound or injure any person; then any offender convicted of such offence, should suffer as a felon and be transported for seven years in like manner as other persons are so convicted. And it is further enacted by the same law that upon application made to the judge of any Court, out of which the writs therein mentioned are issued, the aforesaid judge, if he see proper, may grant a warrant directly to the sheriff, or other person proper to raise the posse comitatus, where there is any probability of resistance. And if in the execution of such warrant any disturbance should happen, and a rescue be made, then the persons assisting in such rescue, or who harbour or conceal the persons so rescued, shall be transported for seven years in like manner as if convicted of felony, but all indictments upon this statute are to be commenced within six months after the fact committed.

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