If there is a particular practice that epitomises the sanctuaries, it is the rescue. This was the forcible release of a prisoner from the custody of an authority, be it the law, the military or bailiffs. Whilst it was common enough during the eighteenth century – especially when the press gang was on the prowl – the sanctuaries provided two enhancements: a ready crew for mounting them and a place of safety from recapture.
The following document from 1697 shows a rescue more or less carried out ‘to order.’ Two men were being taken under habeas corpus from Somerset to the London courts; a letter requesting their rescue was sent to one Thomas Gurney in Whitefriars, who raised a troop and intercepted them. Gurney seems to have been an important figure in Alsatia: not only was he the organizer of this escape, but he had also been involved in the riot against the Templars that led to the execution of Francis Winter. I will be writing more about him in the future. But otherwise, with part of the document illegible and no other information on this trial or the original case, many questions are left hanging. Why were the men being taken to London? Were they criminals or witnesses? Who required their rescue?
Thomas Gurney, was Indicted for a Riot and Rescous committed at the Cross-Keys in Arundel-street, and Rescuing one Robert Webb, and Samuel Moore Prisoners, who were brought out of Somersetshire, by virtue of their Habeas Corpus’s, by one Richard Fox. It appeared that there was a Letter sent to this Gurney to the Clubb, at the Rising-Sun in Water-Lane; in which was, That a Friend of his desired the Assistance of 8 men for a Friend that was in trouble. Some of White-Friars men accordingly went to Rescue him from the Rose at Knights-bridge; but missed of their design, and heard that they were in Arundel-street; …. [a section of the text is unreadable] …. and carried them to the Temple-stairs, and got them in Boats, and carried them to Dorset-stairs, and from thence to Gurneys House in White-Fryers, they pursuing them there, the Fryers-men beat them, and knockt them down. The Trial lasted long; and the Jury having considered the matter, found him Guilty.
Source: Old Bailey Proceedings Online (www.oldbaileyonline.org, version 6.0, 31 August 2011), February 1697, trial of Thomas Gurney (t16970224-49).
There was another sort of rescue, where debtors were aided in escaping into the sanctuaries. This may have had a criminal aspect, of setting up a front business, obtaining goods on credit and then absconding. But there is no mention of this in the following account from 1690, where one of the ‘White Fryers men’ was charged with a murder committed in the course of the escape.
John Goodson as principal, and Abraham Hartslop as Accessary, were both tryed for the Murther of one Bartholomew Long on the 8th day of May last, giving him a mortal Bruise with a Quarter-Staff upon the head, of which he instantly died. The Evidence declared, that some rude Fellows viz White Fryers Men, were striving to get away some Goods out of the Prosecutor’s house in Cow-lane , the Tenant, viz. a Broker, designing to make his Escape deceitfully into the Mint: But the Landlord interposing, they made a great Mutiny, and Riotous Tumult, threatning to be the death of any who should oppose them, and had several Quarter-staves, and short wooden pocket pistols, (as they term them) which are to be used in Chambers, or narrow places, with other Instruments of Cruelty.
Goodson, was seen to strike the deceased with an Ashen Quarter-staff about five Foot long, of which he immediately died. But it did not appear that Hartslope struck any Blow. The Surgeon said that the deceased died of the Bruise. Goodson offer’d but little for himself, only that he was hired as a Porter to get away the Goods and called some Evidence, who gave a fair account of his former Conversation. But there being but one Evidence that swore positively Goodson struck the Blow, a Debate arose between the Court and the Jury; afterwards they came to this Result, That the matter should at present be found Special , &c.
Source: Old Bailey Proceedings Online (www.oldbaileyonline.org, version 6.0, 31 August 2011), June 1690, trial of John Goodson Abraham Hartslop (t16900605-5).
A curiosity of this account is that the Alsatians were to take a fellow from nearby Cow Street, just north of Whitefriars, across the Thames to Southwark Mint. This suggests, perhaps, co-operation between the sanctuaries.