Dreads and Drolls, by Arthur Machen

The Ingenious Mr. Blee

“Stephen M’Daniel, John Berry, James Egan (otherwise Gahagan) and James Salmon were indicted, for that, at the gaol delivery for our sovereign lord the King at the county gaol at Maidstone for the county of Kent, on Tuesday, the 13th of August, in the twenty-eighth year of our said sovereign lord the King, Peter Kelly and John Ellis were, in due form of law, indicted for a robbery on the King’s highway on James Salmon, by putting him in corporal fear and danger of his life, in the parish of St. Paul, Deptford, in the county of Kent, and taking from him one linen handkerchief, value 4d., two pair of leather breeches, one clasp knife, one iron tobacco box, one silver pocket-piece, one guinea, and one half-crown; and that the said Peter Kelly and John Ellis were tried and convicted for that robbery; and that the said M’Daniel, Berry, Egan, and Salmon, on the 23rd of July, 1754, in the City of London, were accessories before this felony was committed; and feloniously and maliciously did aid, abet, assist, counsel, hire and command the said Ellis and Kelly to commit this robbery, against the peace his crown and dignity.”

Thus in and these words were the Right Honourable Theodore Janssen, Esq., Lord Mayor of the City of London, and his Majesty’s Justices of Oyer and Terminer introduced to what Mr. Sampson Brass would have called a pretty little conspiracy. And the person who unveiled it all, for good reasons, no doubt, pertaining to his comfort and peace of mind and of body was a Mr. Thomas Blee, who lodged at John Berry’s house and did odd jobs, very odd jobs indeed, for him. It seemed that there was what we should call a Little Syndicate, consisting of Berry and his fellows at the bar of the Old Bailey. They all lived round and about Hatton Garden and the backways of Holborn, and they had quiet little drinks together over business in the taproom of the Bell and in other vanished taverns. The syndicate was in low water in July, 1754, and Berry sent his man Blee — how did Stevenson miss so wonderful a name while he was thinking of his pirates and villains at large? — to M’Daniel, and a sort of unofficial committee meeting was held. At the end of it they both said to Blee: “Tom, money grows scarce, you must give a sharp look out for a couple to go upon the scamp now, and if you cannot get two, you must get one.” The “scamp,” Thomas Blee explained, meant the highway. But Thomas was troubled with scruples. He told Berry and M’Daniel, as he swore, that Kidden’s was so bad an affair that he did not choose to be concerned more. Kidden had been tried, condemned and executed a year before; and since secrecy is now valueless it may be mentioned that the business of Berry and his syndicate was to lure poor runagates into the commission of felony, to get them condemned and executed, and then to pocket the reward. It was Fagin, and perhaps rather worse than Fagin, long before Fagin’s day; but it will be noted that Mr. Berry’s beat was not very remote from that of Dickens’s Jew.

Well, Thomas Blee, remembering poor Kidden’s end, had scruples, but they were overcome. The next day Berry, M’Daniel and Blee went into Spa Fields — all grey squares and grey streets now between Sadler’s Wells and Islington — and looked for idle fellows, at first without success. Then there was another and a fuller committee meeting at the sign of Sir John Oldcastle; in this Salmon, the breeches maker, was included. There was a good deal of discussion as to where the robbery should be committed, and it was pointed out that there were peculiar advantages attached to the road between New Cross turnpike and Deptford, since the inhabitants of East Greenwich offered a special reward of twenty pounds for the apprehension of highwaymen and footpads. And it was settled that Mr. Salmon should be the gentleman to be robbed, and that a Mr. Egan should act as “fence,” to buy the stolen goods, and the happy party calculated that what with the official reward and the unofficial reward they would make twenty pounds apiece — about £100 of our money, I suppose. And a day or two later, the friends met together at the Bell, in Holborn, and made the most minute arrangements as to the various identifiable properties that Salmon was to carry; in order that he might be robbed of them. So everything was settled very comfortably, and it only remained to find a couple of young fellows to play the part of the thieves; and that was the business of good Thomas Blee. Accordingly, Mr. Blee went to work. He found two likely young fellows, known pickpockets, down in Fleet Market, Farringdon Street. These were Kelly and Ellis, and Blee told them, according to his instructions, that he knew where to get “a brave parcel of lullies”— otherwise, a parcel of linen. And then followed the most elaborate proceedings. Blee had to show his two prospective highwaymen to Berry and the other members of the syndicate that their skilled eyes might see whether the two young men were suitable for the purpose; and there were meetings at the Plumb Tree ale-house in Plumb Tree Court, Shoe Lane, and occasions when Blee stood by Ellis and Kelly in the Artillery Ground — where the White Regiment was marching. Everything was satisfactory.

“Mr. Berry,” said Thomas Blee, “do you think they will do?” And Mr. Berry said, in his hearty way:

“Do! Damme, I have done less than they over, for March and Newman were less.”

I am not quite clear as to the precise sense of this remark. It may mean that Mr. Berry was quite satisfied that Ellis and Kelly were not too young to be hanged. At any rate, he was pleased, since he gave Blee sixpence, double his usual gratuity. The affair seemed very promising, and the day for the robbery had been settled, when the plan was a little disarranged by some trouble in the Artillery Ground, where Kelly and Ellis usually “worked”— in the sense that the Artful Dodger and Charley Bates worked.

“About half-an-hour after that,” says Thomas Blee, “there was hue-and-cry after a pickpocket. M’Daniel came to me, and said, ‘The chief person is a-ducking in the Pyed–Horse Yard; follow him, and give him some gin, for they have almost killed him.’”

Blee found Ellis and gave him a penny or two and went back and reassured M’Daniel: “then he and I came out of the Artillery ground together; as we were coming out of the ground, we met one they call Plump (his name Brebrook) and another fellow they call Doctor, that was turnkey at Clerkenwell Bridewell. Plump, seeing M’Daniel and I together, said to me, ‘You rascal, you deserve to be hanged for that affair of Ridden.’”

The day was finally settled. Berry gave Blee the extraordinary sum of five shillings “to flash to the boys,” to dazzle them, that is, with the sight of so much money, for Blee usually gave them gin by ha’porths. So the party set out on the way to Deptford, calling by arrangement with the syndicate at certain taverns on the way. At one of these taverns there was almost a misadventure. Kelly caught a glimpse of Berry, lurking in obscurity, and on coming out observed with an oath to Blee: “There is that old thief-catching son of a bitch, your old master.” But Blee soothed his fears, and a breast of lamb was bought in the Borough Market, and fried for dinner at the Black Spread Eagle in Kent Street. The three drank together, and slept in the fields, Salmon and Berry always, as it were, round the corner, slinking on the track of Blee and his victims, communicating with Blee under the very noses of Kelly and Ellis. Salmon came into a tavern where Blee and his young friends were sitting, and, taking a place near them, began to speak of walking to London. Then Berry passes the tavern window and beckons to Blee with an evil crook of his finger, and so Blee gets his last instructions, and the three steal out on the track of Salmon. Up to this time, be it remembered, the two dupes thought they were to steal “lullies,” or linen. But the sight of Salmon walking before them on the dark, lonely road had the desired effect. Kelly observed: “There is that old blood of a bitch, the breeches-maker in Shoe Lane . . . let’s scamp him.” Accordingly, Salmon was set upon by all three and robbed according to plan. The next day, Egan, the receiver, or fence, of the comedy, was “discovered” in the Black Spread Eagle by Blee, and over a breakfast of lamb’s liver and bacon, washed down by a pot of “twopenny”— the eighteenth century equivalent of the “four ale” of pre-War days — the stolen goods, all carefully marked for identification, were handed over to the fence. Kelly and Ellis were arrested, tried, and condemned to death in due course; and everything seemed to point to a large reward and a happy ending for everybody concerned — save Kelly and Ellis.

But something went wrong. The constables arrested not only Kelly and Ellis but also Thomas Blee. This may have been a blunder, a pure accident, or Kelly and Ellis may have given Blee away, or Mr. Berry may have considered in his wisdom that Blee’s time was come, and that he was ripe for the journey in the Tyburn cart. But Thomas did exactly as might have been expected. He turned King’s Evidence at the first possible moment; and the little syndicate found themselves in the dock at the Old Bailey pleading not guilty to the indictment quoted at the head of this article. They called divers friends to give evidence as to character, and the said friends declared in cheerful unison that Berry and the rest of them bore the worst characters possible. The verdict was Guilty, and sentence seven years’ imprisonment, two turns in the pillory, and a fine of one mark each. The sting of the sentence was in the pillory. M’Daniel and Berry, pilloried near Hatton Garden, were with difficulty rescued by the sheriff from the fury of the mob. Then Egan and Salmon stood in the pillory at Smithfield. At the end of half an hour’s hail of oyster-shells and stones, Egan was struck dead, and Salmon dangerously wounded. In the end, Salmon and Berry died in Newgate, and M’Daniel “procured himself to be sent abroad for life to the Indies as a soldier.”

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Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 20:38