Gaol Fever

A guest post by Adrian Teal, who will be well known to some readers as a caricaturist with leanings towards the 18th century…

When you’re spending three years hunting down scandalous true stories for a spoof Georgian tabloid called The Gin Lane Gazette, it’s inevitable that crime and punishment will feature prominently in your endeavours. The Old Bailey itself certainly crops up regularly in a host of my favourite tales of 18th-century lawbreaking, and its rich history supplied me with many juicy headlines for my compendium of hack reportage.

The Monster

Renwick Williams, ‘The Monster’ © Adrian Teal

One of these favourites, and also one of the most discussed Old Bailey cases of the 1790s, was that concerning a knife-wielding maniac dubbed ‘The Monster’ by the gentlemen of the Georgian press. In December of 1790, one Renwick Williams was found guilty of bloody assaults on upwards of fifty women in London. The attacks began in May of 1788. An unidentified man was said to follow his victims, rant remarks of a lewd nature at them, and then stab them in the thighs or buttocks with a small knife. It was often reported that he also had blades fastened to his knees. As news and rumour spread, general panic ensued, during which armed vigilantes roamed the city’s streets, and ladies took to wearing copper pots against their backsides as protection. A group of men established a No Monster Club, and sported emblems on their coats to signify that they were not the feared felon. A theatrical number entitled The MONSTER, Or, The Wounded Ladies, was put on at Astley’s Theatre, and became hugely popular. Meanwhile, the up-and-coming caricaturist James Gillray used the furore surrounding the attacks as the basis for two of his brilliant engravings. One of these was a political satire showing the Whig Charles James Fox as the Monster standing in the dock at Bow Street.

Bow Street’s constables were hindered in their efforts to apprehend the Monster by the many different descriptions of him they were given, no two accounts of his appearance being the same. A fellow called Angerstein offered a reward of £100 for his capture, with the unhappy result of many blameless men being apprehended by avaricious citizens.

J. Gillray, Charles James Fox as the Monster, 1790

Gillray satire of the Whig Charles James Fox as the Monster, 1790

Williams was arrested in June, 1790, with the assistance of John Coleman, an admirer of one Ann Porter, who had been attacked in January of that year. Porter identified Williams, who insisted he was innocent of the charge laid against him, which was one of assault against Porter and other victims. His first trial was held at the Sessions House of the Old Bailey on the 8th July, during which many witnesses affirmed that he had been at work at the time of the alleged attack on Porter. In spite of these character witnesses, and doubts voiced publicly by Angerstein concerning his culpability, Williams was found guilty. However, the judge proved reluctant to sentence him, and expressed reservations concerning the evidence. He referred the case to High Courts, which overturned the conviction on a technicality, but the offence was nonetheless deemed a High Misdemeanour. A retrial was ordered, and lasted thirteen hours, after which Williams was at last found guilty, and sentenced to serve a six-year stretch in Newgate Gaol.

Williams was a former lawyer’s clerk, who worked as an artificial-flower maker in Dover Street before his indictment. He was often visited in his cell by curious members of the public, to whom he sold his flowers, having resumed his trade within the gaol’s formidable walls. Speculation persists as to whether Williams was guilty, and indeed as to whether the Monster’s crimes ever truly happened in the first place. Mass hysteria might have played a prominent role in this particular legal drama.

By a degree or two of separation, The Gin Lane Gazette has a slightly glamorous link to an incarnation of the Georgian judicial system’s most famous venue. My editor on the book was Justin Pollard, who, in addition to being a publisher, author, and QI researcher, is also a historical adviser to the film and TV industries. He has worked with Bettany Hughes, and countless other telly historians. He was a consultant on the sexy drama series The Tudors, although he’d probably tell you the principal reason he was involved in this was because it annoyed David Starkey, which is a good enough reason for doing anything, I suppose. He was also an adviser on a Pirates of the Caribbean movie. If you enjoyed the exuberant ‘re-imagining’ of the 18th-century Old Bailey’s modus operandi in the sequel featuring Ian McShane as Blackbeard, you have Justin to thank.

Death at the Old Bailey

Death at the Old Bailey © Adrian Teal

When I was first discussing the 18th century and the general idea for my book over a pint with Justin, we realised we were thinking along similar lines when we both expressed our delight that a tradition begun at the Old Bailey courtrooms in the middle of the Georgian age is still observed to this day.

In May of 1750 an outbreak of ‘gaol fever’ at the Old Bailey claimed the lives of many people, including some prominent public figures. It is thought that the contagion was carried into the court by prisoners brought to trial at the City Quarter Sessions, and commentators later observed that the victims all seemed to have been seated near the accused on the court’s left-hand side. Most eminent amongst the sixty souls who died were Sir Samuel Pennant, the Lord Mayor; three justices, one of whom was Justice Abney; an Alderman called Sir Daniel Lambert; an Under-Sheriff; and eight members of the Middlesex jury.

Gaol fever is now known as typhus, and is caused by bacteria in the bites of fleas and lice. Symptoms include fever, headaches, and a red, spotty rash. As preventatives against this virulent disease, court-goers began carrying posies of flowers in the weeks that followed, and sweet-smelling herbs were spread about the benches in the hope of quelling further outbreaks. Pleasingly, this is the practice that continues today.

Adrian Teal is a freelance caricaturist, and the author and illustrator of The Gin Lane Gazette, published by Unbound, £12.99.

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2 Responses to Gaol Fever

  1. Sharon Howard says:

    I’d forgotten that – thanks for the reminder!

Comments are closed.