‘A snake into your chimney-corner’: early modern crime and the extended family

One of the striking things about the crimes described in the Old Bailey cases is the frequency with which they involved violations of ‘family’ trust. Most socio-economic and political interactions still took place on a highly personal level during the long eighteenth century despite the expansion of institutions and mass communication. The lives of the majority of Old Bailey victims, from tradesmen to gentlemen, centered upon the individuals encompassed by ‘family’ as well as diverse social and commercial ‘friends’.

Early modern family was often considered to encompass all of the dependents living in a household, even if the various types of family members were still treated differently. The majority of the shops and workshops of London craftsmen and tradesmen of all stripes were still based in or near the home. Therefore family for many people included not only servants, relatives and long-term guests – but also apprentices and sometimes journeymen and employees. Business partners sometimes lived together as well, especially when one was younger and had married a relative and/or previously been an apprentice or employee of the elder. It was in fact grasping commercial partners about whom Daniel Defoe warned, ‘you bring in a snake into your chimney-corner, which, when it is warmed and grown vigorous… hisses you out of the house’ [Daniel Defoe, The complete English tradesman (1727), 213.].


‘A Family Piece’ after Henry William Bunbury, published by William Dickinson in 1781.

Many of these familial relationships were officially governed by written and oral agreements entered into by householders, including for marriage, the indenture of apprentices, the hiring of servants, and the boarding of relatives. These agreements required them to care for and to guide the individuals involved while receiving ritualized ‘Love and Submission’ in return [Samuel Richardson, The Apprentice’s Vade Mecum: or, Young Man’s Pocket-Companion (1734), 46]. This was of course the ideal rather than the constant reality. Sometimes early modern family members conflicted with each other or even severed their bonds, as when an apprentice ran away from his or her master.

Already in the 1720s, Defoe bemoaned the purported breakdown of the traditional paternalistic relationship between master and apprentice – much as adults of every era have bemoaned the waywardness of contemporary youths. The author described how proper masters should include their apprentices and other shop employees in family prayer, and oversee their leisure time and acquaintances, much as would a parent. He blamed the breakdown of this type of relationship, and the resulting lazy and boorish behaviour on the part of apprentices, on the payment of monetary ‘considerations’ to livery company masters at the time of binding the youths: ‘it gives the servant a kind of a different figure in the family, places him above the ordinary class of servants hired for wages, and exempts him from all the laws of family government [Daniel Defoe, The complete English tradesman (1727), 152].’


Christopher Gibson’s early eighteenth-century upholstery shop in St Paul’s Churchyard, with employees scurrying about; it was probably not so spacious nor so whimsical in real life.

Since an array of individuals beyond relatives by blood and marriage could be installed in the home – including apprentices, employees and servants – there was increased risk of crime there. This included crimes committed against the home or home-based shop by people living on the premises – but also by people who used to do so and were thus familiar with their layouts, contents and security measures. For a quick look at many such crimes, one only has to search for ‘apprentice’ in the court cases.

One heart-breaking aspect of crimes committed or thought to have been committed by apprentices, is that the accused could be very young. For example, a boy was tried on 14 April 1675 for having taken money from and set fires in the house of his master, a linen draper. ‘The Master affirmed that he did prosecute him to no other end but to get a discovery of what persons were accessaries with him, and that should put him upon the Design, as supposing it very unlikely that a young boy about 13 years of Age, should enterprize so mischievous an undertaking of himself’.

On 17 January of the following year, there was the ‘Tryal of a very Young Youth, who was Indicted for Stealing one quarter of a Yard of Silk-Lutestring, and a quarter of a yard of Mascarade from a Taylor, to whom he was a Probationary Apprentice: upon his Indictment he Childishly and Innocently pleaded Guilty to the Fellony: but the Court, by reason of his Youth, ordered him to be brought back to the Barr to plead to his Bill, and he pleaded not Guilty, and was quitted.’


A Troughton sextant of c. 1790, now at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich.

When it comes to my own research on the ‘scientific’ instrument trade of early modern London, there are a number of instances of current or former apprentices and employees violating the trust of their masters. As I discussed in my blog post for the tenth anniversary of the Old Bailey Online, this sometimes took the form of workmen skimming metal or even partial or whole instruments from the workshop. (This would have occurred even more frequently than is mentioned in the court records, since it usually did not seem worthwhile in terms of time and money for the master to try to pursue the matter in court.)

There are also instances of apprentices or employees having used their knowledge of the family home and shop to aid burglaries. As I first mentioned in the anniversary post, on 17 February 1802 the famed mathematical instrument maker Edward Troughton told an exciting tale of how tried to chase down and bayonet one of the men who broke into the family workshop in Fleet Street. Troughton’s statement lays bare the betrayal that he felt when 28 year-old William Bean made nefarious use of his recent employment with the family:

‘[A]bout this time they brought the prisoner to ask if I knew him; I found the watchman pushing up his face forcibly for me to see it; I called him inadvertently by a wrong name, but finding I knew him, he went down upon his knees, and begged I would forgive him; I would not hear him, but ordered them to carry him to the watch-house; he had been in my service five or six months, and had quitted it about a month or five weeks; he knew the house near as well as I did.’


The infamous thief Jack Sheppard before his fourth escape from Newgate Prison, from the frontispiece of the ‘Narrative’ of his life published in 1724.

One such case actually turned out surprisingly well for the criminal in the end. Anthony Lamb was apprenticed to the mathematical instrument maker Henry Carter near the Strand in 1720, but was convicted at the Old Bailey four years later of having apparently helped the infamous thief Jack Sheppard to burgle one of Carter’s lodgers. He was awaiting hanging at Tyburn with Sheppard when his sentence was commuted to transportation to Virginia for seven years.

Thereafter Lamb moved to Philadelphia, where he worked as an instrument maker and teacher of mathematical subjects – embarking upon what would become one of the most illustrious careers in the colonial American instrument trade. He highlighted his connections to the London trade in his advertisements and said that he made and sold ‘all Sorts of Instruments for Sea or Land, as Compasses, Quadrants, Forestaffs, Nocturnals, Sectors, Protractors, all sorts of Scales, Gauging Rods, and Rules, in Wood, Ivory, Brass, or Silver; also any other small Work by Wholesale or Resale’ [Pennsylvania Gazette, 3 December 1730]. Lamb moved on to New York by 1749, achieving such respectability that when he died 35 years later, The New York Packet called him ‘a steady friend to the liberties of America’ [Silvio Bedini, Early American Scientific Instruments and Their Makers (2012 ebook), 29].

Image credits: A Family Piece – National Portrait Gallery; Sextant – National Maritime Museum; Gibson shop & Jack Sheppard – Wikimedia Commons.

Alexi Baker, History & Philosophy of Science / CRASSH, University of Cambridge

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