Knives to Grind!

I was sitting quietly at home last weekend when I heard an unusual sound. A man’s voice, quite far away, in a plaintive, sing-song cry. Two rising notes, A, C. A few seconds later it came again, nearer and louder, slightly different words this time but the same two notes.

By this time, I had worked out what it was. An itinerant knife grinder was making his way up my street and every 15 seconds or so he would announce his calling in the ancient way, alternating several stock phrases but always to the same two-note call: “Knives-to-Grind”, “Grind-ing”, “Sharpening-Knives”, “Sharpe-ning”. It was rather beautiful, but haunting. Listen for yourself (it is quite faint to begin with but gets louder after c.30 secs) :

‘Knives to Grind!’

The Knife Grinder has been a presence on London’s streets for hundreds of years, and his cry certainly pre-dates the Civil War. The first pictorial reference I can find, of a grinder with his treadle-operated grindstone, is from 1655, in the splendidly illustrated The Cryes of London with their Severall Notes:

Detail of Knife Grinder from ‘The Cryes of London, with their Severall Notes… (1655) (image courtesy British Museum)

Here are several other later images,

Knives or Cisers to Grind, by Marcellus Laroon, 1688


The Enraged Musician, by William Hogarth 1741

Detail of Knife Grinder from Hogarth’s ‘The Enraged Musician’ 1741

Knives, Scissors and Razors to Grind, by Francis Wheatley, c.1792 (courtesy Bishopsgate Library)

Knives to Grind, by William Marshall Craig 1801

Knives or Scissers to Grind, by Thomas Rowlandson, c.1804

Knives to Grind, by Andrew Tuer 1876 (courtesy Spitalfields Life)

The Knife Grinder

The rich grind the poor, is a saying of old

The merchant, the tradesman, we need not be told

Whether Pagan, Mahometan, Christian you be

There are grinders of all sorts, of ev’ry degree

Master Grinders enough at the helm you may find

Tho’ I’m but a journeyman – Knives to Grind!

(The Myrtle & Vine, or Complete Vocal Library (Vol. II). C. H Wilson, 1803)

If you would like to learn more about the Cries of London, there are many fascinating posts at the Spitalfields Life blog, where you can also obtain The Gentle Author’s Cries of London book on the subject.

The Gentle Author’s Cries of London

Sir Francis Burdett and the Middlesex Elections of 1802-4

In the first decade of the 19th century, Radical politician Sir Francis Burdett played the leading role in a pair of hotly contested and violent parliamentary elections for the county of Middlesex. The events highlighted an ideological gulf – between an appallingly corrupt establishment and an increasingly educated but disenfranchised working class. The great journalist William Cobbett described the resulting riotous events as a battle ‘between the magistrates and the thieves’.

Radicals and Spies

During the early 1790s, in the wake of the French Revolution, radical societies sprang up across England. Their members agitated for universal suffrage and, in more extreme cases, a revolution of their own. In the London suburbs an increasingly paranoid government backed the astonishingly corrupt Middlesex magistrates to suppress these societies.

The London Corresponding Society (‘LCS’) was foremost among the radical groups. Established in 1792, the LCS attracted over 2,000 members in six months, fed by ideas propagated by Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man. When war broke out against France in 1793, the Home Office set up an extensive spy network, focussed on high risk areas such as London’s East End.

The Middlesex magistrates, chaired by William Mainwaring, a banker and Tory MP, recruited and controlled the spies. In doing so, Mainwaring encouraged the corrupt antics of his fellow justices including Joseph Merceron, the infamous ‘Boss of Bethnal Green’.

William Mainwaring MP

In 1794, as a result of information received from an East End spy, several prominent LCS radicals, including politician John Horne Tooke, were tried for treason. Weaknesses in the government’s case, however, led to their acquittal.

Over the next couple of years, trade disruption, a severe winter and successive poor harvests resulted in increasing food prices, heightening tensions and civil unrest. Eventually, sparks flew. In the autumn of 1795, a stone-throwing mob shattered King George III’s carriage windows as he travelled to open Parliament. In response, Prime Minister William Pitt launched his own ‘reign of terror’. He introduced laws forbidding public assembly or the publication of ‘seditious writings’. Pitt applied these ‘Gagging Acts’ with increasing severity, while the Home Office spies busied themselves in infiltrating the Radical societies.


In the spring of 1797, several dozen sailors and Radical activists were arrested after mutinies at the naval bases at Spithead and The Nore. Home Secretary the Duke of Portland ordered the men to be imprisoned. They were held without trial at London’s Coldbath Fields Prison, under the somewhat unwilling supervision of Mainwaring, Merceron and their cronies.

The magistrates ignored and even encouraged the abuse these prisoners suffered at the hands of the prison governor, Thomas Aris. But some well-connected prisoners, including the former army officer Colonel Edward Despard, complained to the radical MP Sir Francis Burdett.

Sir Francis Burdett

Burdett was a fifth generation baronet and scion of an ancient Midlands Tory political family. In his early 20s he had married into the spectacular wealth of the Coutts banking dynasty and become the willing protégé of John Horne Tooke.

He was also very close to the Irish revolutionary politician Arthur O’Connor,. This relationship almost resulted in Burdett’s arrest for treason, when O’Connor was caught conniving with the French earlier in 1798. But Burdett remained an MP, with a growing reputation for opposing injustice whenever he encountered it.

Sir Francis Burdett

When Burdett revealed the prisoners’ treatment in Parliament, it led to a national scandal that rocked the Pitt government and severely damaged the credibility of the Middlesex magistrates. The scandal peaked in 1800 when Burdett exposed the case of 13-year-old Mary Rich, a rape victim imprisoned for a month on bread and water pending her testimony at her rapist’s trial.

Sir Francis Burdett visits Coldbath Fields (‘Citizens Visiting the Bastille’ by James Gillray)

The English Bastille

Burdett’s accounts of his visits to the prison, which he repeatedly likened to the Paris Bastille, led an embattled and embarrassed Duke of Portland to ban him from all prisons in England. This led Burdett almost to the point of withdrawing from politics altogether. But in 1802 there came an opportunity for revenge.

When the exhausted Pitt stood down as Prime Minster in 1801, his successor Addington made a temporary peace with France and called a general election. Horne Tooke and his allies saw their chance and persuaded Burdett, backed by all his family wealth, to stand against William Mainwaring in the Middlesex constituency.

Parliamentary elections before the 19th century reform acts were very different to today’s. In each of the 40 county constituencies, two seats were allocated via a franchise typically based on a property qualification worth £2 per year. Seats were rarely contested but occasionally elections produced bitter battles that lasted for days.The large, shifting and radicalised Middlesex electorate had given rise to some of the fiercest contests. In 1768, the ‘Wilkes and Liberty’ election had lasted a week. Now, 34 years later in a battle that took twice as long to resolve, the cry was “Burdett and No Bastille”.

‘Burdett, and no Bastille’

The election was played out at hustings in Brentford. Burdett journeyed there daily from his home in Piccadilly, accompanied by a drunken crowd led by a band and a gang of butchers’ boys banging marrowbones and meat cleavers, the traditional instruments of street processions.

The second day of the election was July 14th, Bastille Day. Burdett made the most of it, his speeches accusing Mainwaring and his magistrate friends of cruelty, torture and murder. A pattern emerged as Burdett, trailing Mainwaring by several hundred votes but refusing to concede, was acclaimed by drunken crowds back to London who pelted Mainwaring’s coach with stones and dirt.

The contest continued like this for a fortnight until, on the penultimate day, a mysterious block of votes from the shareholders of a factory all went to Burdett – not a single one polled for Mainwaring. It was enough to win the seat for Burdett. He was carried back to London in a triumphal procession of 300 carriages waving his purple campaign colours. ,

A protracted dispute arose over the validity of the mysterious block vote that had swung the election.  In the summer of 1804, Parliament ruled Burdett’s election invalid and called a by-election.  Mainwaring was declared ineligible to stand as a result of his excessive ‘treating’ of electors. The Middlesex magistrates now persuaded Mainwaring’s son George to stand in his place against Burdett.

The 1804 election

The 1804 election was almost an exact re-run of the 1802 campaign. Each evening, Burdett reminded the cheering crowd of Mainwaring’s links to corruption and Coldbath Fields. In turn, Mainwaring was drowned out as he denounced Burdett’s friendship with the traitor Despard, executed for treason the previous year.

The race was neck and neck. At the close, three sets of poll books called the result differently. True to form, Burdett repeated his triumphal procession to London but two days later the sheriffs called the result for Mainwaring and it was Burdett’s turn to protest in vain.

Middlesex Election, 1804 by James Gillray


George Mainwaring and his father, together with Joseph Merceron and their corrupt associates, went on to dominate the local government of Middlesex for a further decade until their frauds caught up with them.

Sir Francis Burdett, still sponsored by Horne Tooke, turned his attention to the more radical seat of Westminster following the death of Charles James Fox in 1806, retaining it until after the Reform Act of 1832. By this time, however, his firebrand politics had matured into something more like the mild Toryism of his ancestors.

Julian Woodford’s biography of Joseph Merceron, The Boss of Bethnal Green, is available from Spitalfields Life Books, Amazon or other online booksellers.

An earlier version of this post was published in the London Historians members’ newsletter in December 2016.

London’s Women Convicts – a Single to Sydney

Today’s ‘London tales’ post tells how an old trade card found on Ebay led to the story of two women convicts transported to Australia, and contrasts the severity of their punishment with the leniency of that meted out to the subject of my book, ‘The Boss of Bethnal Green’.


An old trade card on Ebay

This story begins with an old trade card I bought on Ebay. Undated, it was issued by ‘John Garton, Hosier, of 97 Cheapside, the Corner of Lawrence Lane’. When the card arrived in the post, I was immediately attracted to its clean typography and the feel of the indented letters, revealing the force with which they were punched into the stiff card, more than 200 years ago. The description, too, is rather lovely, with its proclamation of ‘real Welch Flannels of a curiously fine Texture’. What gobbets of London’s past will it reveal?


Cheapside is one of London’s most ancient highways, occupying the important east-west route from the Bank of England to St Paul’s Cathedral and dominated by Wren’s glorious St Mary-le-Bow. ‘Cheapside’ means ‘by the side of the market place’, and even into Victorian times it was described as ‘the busiest thoroughfare in the world’. For centuries it was known for the clothing trade, with its silk mercers, drapers, haberdashers and hosiers. It is still dominated by clothing retailers, and the Worshipful Company of Mercers has its livery hall on Ironmonger Lane just a few yards away.

St Mary-le-Bow in the 18th century.

St Mary-le-Bow today, as seen from 97 Cheapside

John Lydgate’s 15th century London Lykpenny describes a visit to Cheapside:

Then to the Chepe I began me drawne,

Where mutch people I saw for to stande,

One ofred me velvet, sylke, and lawne,

An other, he taketh me by the hande,

‘Here is Parys threde, the fynest in the lande’;

I never was used to such thyngs indede,

And wantyng mony, I myght not spede.

Cheapside’s dependence on the cloth trades continued. In 1731 Jonathan Swift was calling his friend John Gay, author of The Beggars Opera, ‘as arrant a cockney as any hosier in Cheapside’. By 1794, of approximately 120 shops on the street, some 65 were engaged in drapery or related trades. Among them was John Garton’s, which lay on the north side of the street on the corner of Lawrence Lane, almost directly across the road from St Mary-le-Bow. We have a clear picture of the situation and style of Garton’s shop, as it features in both William Horwood’s map of London (1792-6) and in Tallis’s Street View of 1847.

97 Cheapside, from William Horwood’s map of London 1792-6.

97 Cheapside, from Tallis’s Street View 1847

Stealing Stockings

Thanks to the Old Bailey Online, we can bring John Garton and his little shop to life. On 2nd August 1798, around four-thirty in the afternoon, Garton was upstairs in his storeroom. His shopman was minding the store, and his assistant, Robert White, was at work making stockings on a knitting frame when two teenage girls entered and engaged the shopman in conversation about the price of stockings and gloves. The elder girl, Sarah Lawrence, then asked to examine some flannel and drew the shopman into the light of the window to see it better. Looking up from his frame, White saw the other girl, Mary Smith, grab a handful of silk stockings from the counter and stuff them under her bonnet.

The dutiful White leapt up from his frame and accosted Smith, removing her hat and revealing the stolen goods. The local constable was called and both Lawrence and Smith were arrested. Realising the consequences for the girls, John Garton took pity on them, suggesting to the constable that they be let off with a caution, but the officer insisted on pressing charges and taking the girls away. It transpired that Lawrence was 18 and Smith just 16. The girls were taken to the Poultry Compter, a small nearby prison known for its appalling conditions, and were tried at the Old Bailey six weeks later. Garton and White reported the facts as they had occurred. Despite producing character witnesses, and Lawrence protesting she was Smith’s innocent dupe, both girls were found guilty and sentenced to transportation for seven years.

A Single Ticket to Sydney

Transportation to America had ceased following the U.S Declaration of Independence in 1776. British prisons had subsequently become dangerously overcrowded and as a result the government began to transport prisoners to the new colonies in Australia from 1788. Over the next decade, as the colony in Sydney, New South Wales, developed, the imbalance of male to female convicts began to strain the sustainability of the settlement and the decision was made to send occasional all-female shipments.

While waiting for transportation, Lawrence and Smith were almost certainly kept in Newgate Prison. According to William Eden Hooper’s 1935 History of Newgate and the Old Bailey, conditions for the female prisoners were dreadful:

The tried and untried, young girls and abandoned women, were herded together…their babies and children with them… Nearly all the women were heavily ironed…In the two wards and one yard, built to hold about sixty women, there were, in 1817, about three hundred women and children crowded – the former the very scum of the earth; filthy in their habits and disgusting in their persons. 

Eventually after a year a shipment of female convicts to Sydney was arranged on the Speedy, a 300-ton whaler. Sarah Lawrence, now 19, was one of 53 women selected for the journey. (It seems Mary Smith’s sentence was commuted and she avoided transportation*). The women were herded into carts and driven to Portsmouth at the threat of a whipping if they didn’t comply. According to Hooper:

Previous to embarkation for transport, these poor creatures, mad with their griefs and drink, used to riot and smash everything on which they could lay their hands, so that these were lashed behind their backs, and in that condition they were dragged or driven in open vehicles to the waterside amidst the jeers of the populace. 

Aboard the Speedy

The Speedy embarked on 20th November 1799 in convoy with 150 other ships. A journey to the other side of the world was dangerous enough, but with Britain at war with France, this was a perilous journey in the extreme. Luckily for our story, the Speedy had some other passengers, aboard for quite a different reason. As a result, we have some brilliant glimpses of the adventures experienced by Sarah Lawrence and her fellow convicts as they travelled to meet their punishment half a world from London.

The incoming Governor of New South Wales, Philip Gidley King, was returning to Australia with his wife Anna after recuperating from illness in England. But within two days of setting sail, the sickly King went down with a cold and rheumatism. Anna King, made of sterner stuff and presumably bored stiff, spent the five-month voyage keeping a diary, redolent of a Patrick O’Brian novel, that paints a fascinating picture of shipboard life with 22 rough sailors, 8 other passengers and 50 convict women while her pathetic and gouty husband, intermittently bedridden, complained variously of pains in his head, stomach, knees, elbow, hip, hands and feet.


Anna Josepha King

A fortnight out of Portsmouth, Mrs King awakes to discover the Speedy has lost its convoy in the night and is alone on its journey. From that point, every sail on the horizon is a potential enemy ship that can sink or capture them. But the redoubtable Anna King soldiers on with her task, recording the minutiae of life despite storms which break her cabin windows, sever the mizzen mast and leave the convicts swilling in water ‘liked drowned rats’. One tempest carries away railings, water casks, a boat crane and, to the Governor’s dismay, ‘Mr King’s tin bath’. On another occasion Anna herself identifies a fire in the hold which luckily is extinguished before it can destroy the ship.

Scotch Fiddle

Anna King is an interested observer of the convict women, noting the illnesses they suffer, notably ‘the Scotch fiddle’ (scabies) and heavy seasickness, and for a time has to stand in for the temporarily insane ship’s doctor. On Christmas day, ‘the ladies’ are reported as ‘all very happy’ and are allowed to dance on deck for a couple of hours. Perhaps predictably, this results in a convict being caught in flagrante with one of the cabin boys. The punishment for this is for both parties to be forcibly held under the water pump – following which the woman throws herself overboard in desperation, but luckily is rescued before she can drown, and is returned to her senses by the application of an emetic consisting of three teaspoons of black pepper in a glass of red wine – ‘a most powerful medicine’, as Mrs King records.

The diary highlights the perils of illness and disease aboard ship and the vagaries of food supplies. Mrs King makes much of the deaths of sheep, pigs and chickens. She suffers a peculiar adventure of her own, when one lunchtime she raises a glass of port to her lips just as a fat and clumsy goose falls straight through the skylight above and onto her head ‘with one foot in my glass – away went porter, glass and all’.  During the voyage two of the convicts, a child and another passenger die from a variety of illnesses or from falling overboard in rough weather. One, a Mrs Butler, becomes insane for several days before dying off Trinidad and the convict women claim to be tormented by her ghost for days afterwards.

After all these adventures, the Speedy arrived in Sydney on 13th April 1800. What happened to the convict women after they arrived in Australia? Later shipments were taken to the infamous ‘Female Factory’, a workhouse-cum-prison in Parramatta on the edge of the colony, but in these early years it seems most women became servants to the officers or other settlers. At this point, Sarah Lawrence disappears from history and I have been unable to learn whether she survived her sentence, or if she ever returned to London at the end of it.


The convict settlement in Sydney, c.1800.


A pair of convicts in Australia, c.1800.

As I contemplate the enormity of Sarah’s seven year stretch at the world’s end, just for stealing four pairs of stockings, I can only contrast it with the leniency of the sentence passed 20 years later on the ‘Godfather’ of Regency London, Joseph Merceron, the subject of my book  The Boss of Bethnal GreenConvicted for stealing £1,000 (no small amount in those days) from the poor of Bethnal Green, and for the corrupt licensing as a magistrate of public houses that he owned and ran as gin palaces and brothels, Merceron received just a two-year sentence which he spent in relative comfort in a London prison. Cases against him for a large number of other offences never reached court. It really did not pay to be poor in Georgian London.


* An earlier version of this post was published on the Spitalfields Life blog on 2nd November 2016. When I wrote it, I had been unable to find any trace of Mary Smith after her trial and wrote that I assumed she had died in Newgate. Within a few hours of posting, the team from the Old Bailey Online contacted me to say they had found the Criminal Register entries for both Sarah Lawrence and Mary Smith!


Criminal Register entry for Mary Smith (click to see larger version of image)

The registers tell us that Mary was 5 feet 2 inches tall, born in Whitechapel, with dark complexion and that she was transferred out of Newgate in September 1800 – to where, we do not know. Sarah Lawrence was just four feet ten inches tall, born in the City of London and of fair complexion. Many thanks to Sharon Howard of the Old Bailey Online & London Lives projects at the University of Sheffield for supplying this information.