The trial of George Barrington, 1787

George Barrington was indicted for feloniously stealing, on the 19th of January, 1787, at the parish of St. Martin in the Fields, a silk purse value 2d. and twenty-three guineas, value £24 3s. and one half-guinea, value 10s. 6d. the property of Havilland Le Mesurier, Esq. privily from his person. From the Lawyer's and Magistrate's Magazine, Vol. I., 1792.

George Barrington (1755-1804) was a notorious pickpocket. He hailed from Ireland and after charming his way out of several long sentences for theft, he ended up being transported to Australia, and penned the interesting A Voyage to Botany Bay: With a description of the country, manners, customs, religion &c. of the Natives. The link includes a biography of Barrington. The Priaulx Library possesses a significant collection of Havilland Le Mesurier's personal correspondence (see link below), from which it is evident both that he was an avid theatre-goer, and that he was an extremely upright and honest man.

Before the Jury were sworn, the prisoner said, 'I beg leave to challenge them. I own that I am acting under the influence of a report which is, perhaps, very untrue.—I mean no reflection;' upon which the second Middlesex Jury was put in the place of the first.

Havilland Le Mesurier. I was at the play-house in Drury lane, on the 19th of January, 1787; I saw the prisoner there; it was at the end of the play: I left my party to meet my servants. As I came into the lobby, I observed it was excessively crowded: a circumstance then struck me of having a great deal of money in my purse, which led me to be extremely on my guard. When I got into the lobby, I put my watch-chain very deep in my fob, and put my left hand down to guard my pocket. I went along, pressing through the crowd to get to my servants; I felt my purse move, and, on feeling my purse move, I immediately got a hand up in this manner with my right hand, and with my left I turned round to seize the person whose hand I had. I seized the prisoner's hand close to my pocket, and with the other hand I turned round and seized his person. I did not say any thing to the prisoner; my aim and wish was to recover my purse, which I thought was in his hand. I had not time to seize upon him; for a clergyman, Mr. Adean, stept up and said, Sir, you are right, I saw him do it. Mr. Adean is now abroad. There were people all round: on Mr. Adean's stepping up to me, on my having his hand up still, a gentleman from the other side called out, Sir, here is your purse; and delivered me my purse. It was instantly on feeling my purse move that I caught the hand; there was no interval whatever; neither the prisoner's hand, or any hand, was ever in my pocket; my breeches pocket was never unbuttoned; my purse, although it contained twenty-three guineas and a half, which is a weight, got through my pocket without being unbuttoned; and, on examining my breeches afterwards, I found that my breeches was cut through. No hand was in my pocket; Mr. Adean and myself kept possession of the prisoner's person; after having recovered the purse, I had the care of it, and it being known there was money in it, I got hold of his person with my left hand; there was a great deal of trouble; we were shoved about. But I ought to state, that the prisoner on my seizing him, and on Mr. Adean's assisting me, said, What do you mean? I am a gentleman; consider, Sir, what you are doing, I am a gentleman; only consider the consequence of this, for God’s sake consider. The prisoner was extremely pale and confused; I kept asking him, who are you? to which he gave me no answer, only saying he was a gentleman. We called out for a constable, and after some time a constable came; we asked the constable, who was the unfortunate Blandy, if he knew him; he looked at him very hard, and said, No, I do not know the prisoner. After a great deal of difficulty he was had to the Brown Bear, where I delivered him to the custody of Blandy. I attended the next day at the office in Bow-street, but the prisoner was not there. It was a striped silk purse, with twenty-three guineas and a half. It was merely the lining of the pocket that was cut, perhaps a couple of inches through the upper part of the pocket. When the constable said it was not Barrington, Mr. Adean said, I saw him take it, and I will lay down my life on the occasion. I believe I said in Bow street, that I seized a person's hand near to my pocket, which hand appeared to be the defendant's, and that I therefore believed and suspected that the defendant was the person that robbed me.

Question from the Jury.—When you seized the prisoner, was he on your right hand or the left?—He was behind me; the person that gave me the purse was on one side. I was standing in this manner: I had the prisoner's hand, and the first idea I had was, it belonged to the person that was before me, but jerking it up, I found that it belonged to the prisoner.

Court. You say the prisoner was behind you ?—Yes.Where was the hand?—The hand was close to my pocket, and he was behind me.

Jury. Did you keep fast hold of him by the hand till you laid hold of him with the other hand?—Yes. Why had you any doubt in Bow-street?—I had no doubt; my idea was, the hand belonged to the man that was before, me, and I wanted to know to whom the hand belonged, and. jerking it up, I found it belonged to the prisoner.

Yes, but you said in Bow-street, that it appeared to belong to the prisoner, and you suspected it was him that robbed you?—That word appeared I never meant, and if I made use of it in Bow-street, I never meant it.

Prisoner's Defence.

May it please your Lordship, and you Gentlemen of the Jury; the benignity and candour which mark the judicial proceedings of this country, of which I have recently met a distinguished proof, induce me to hope, with the utmost humility, that the indulgent attention of the Court will not be withheld on the present occasion; but that it will be extended, not through the merit of anything I may urge, but from the generous and impartial impulse of your own minds towards everyone who is so unhappy as to stand here, the subject of accusation; and is ever there was a case which called for the calm, I will not say the compassionate, consideration of your Lordship and the Gentlemen of the Jury, it is perhaps the present, as well from the heavy affliction I have sustained for many months before I could obtain a trial, as from the newspaper calumny that has been levelled against me, even under the pressure of a long imprisonment, and to the very hour of my trial.

It is but too true, that l had the misfortune to be at the play about the time mentioned in the indictment; I had sometimes an opportunity to obtain an order for the play, through the medium of a respectable though no very intimate friend; and it is unnecessary for me to say, that the part of the house is not thought material in general when an order is given. I was going through the box-passage on my way home, when someone said it is certainly Barrington, and almost at the same instant I was addressed by a person who requested me to tell my name; I asked his reason for the enquiry; he turned from me, and said, Mr. Le Mesurier, is this the person? The prosecutor said he had lost his purse, and that I was near him, but no more; the passage was extremely crowded, and this conversation excited the general attention: some of the bystanders requested I would give my name. I told them I should decline giving my name there, the matter being of an unpleasant nature; but that, is these was any charge against me, I had no objection to go before a magistrate. Some gentlemen close to the prosecutor observed, that such a step would be quite unnecessary, as I would call on any gentleman present; while others said that my name was Barrington: the prosecutor in the mean time was no way active on the occasion, or like a man that was at all convinced in his own mind; and an altercation merely about my name continued, l may venture to say, pretty near half an hour; when the approach of the constable was announced, the crowd was so great it was with great difficulty they could come near; and then being asked concerning me, he said he could not recollect me, or words to that effect. Some gentlemen continued to suggest the propriety of my calling on some person that knew me, which they said would entirely do away all imputation; while others told, Mr. Le Mesurier, you should go before Sir Sampson Wright. Mr. Le Mesurier then absolutely replied, What is the use of my going there? I am not sure; I can say nothing to affect him.

This, Gentlemen of the Jury, was really the language of Mr. Le Mesurier then, however it may have been forgot; however it may have been changed since, to answer the present purpose: some little altercation further continued about my name, when someone said, Here is Townshend of Bow-street, he perhaps knows something of the prisoner, let us hear what he says. When he mentioned my name, some gentleman said, I told you how it was; when several other gentlemen observed that my name was then quite immaterial from the declaration that Mr. Le Mesurier had made; that, if Mr. Le Mesurier had been convinced of the fact in his own mind, I ought to have been taken before a magistrate, whoever I was, or whatever my name was; but that, as he had declared he was by no means certain, it was neither fair nor reasonable that a man should be criminated because his name was Barrington. This, Gentlemen of the Jury, was the opinion of many gentlemen; some of whom, I am satisfied, Mr. Le Mesurier well knows to be such, and the majority of the company concurred in that opinion. The altercation still continued about my name; and it may appear strange, perhaps incredible, that I, who about half an hour before was accused with a breach of the peace, and as an offender, should be then actually employed as moderator in endeavouring to appease the generous impulse that prevailed in my favour, by requesting that the matter might have a legal hearing: such, however, Gentlemen was the fact. I was conveyed to the publick-house, the Brown Bear, in Bow-street; and however the unhappy circumstance of my withdrawing from thence may have hitherto operated to my disadvantage, I trust, that when the circumstances of the case are duly and candidly considered, it will lose that effect. I found myself there under a charge that I clearly perceived looked up to something for its support, beyond facts and circumstances; I had just seen a striking proof what prejudice may be attached to a name; and it was impossible for me to say how far it might not extend. Under apprehension, at once natural and alarming, an opportunity occurred to enable me to withdraw, and I embraced it—unfortunately embraced it! I broke no gaol nor watch-house on the occasion; no judicial prosecution, or commitment, had taken place; and I trust that it may fairly be construed rather as a retreat from prejudice, than as a flight from accusation; in leaving that place, gentlemen, I neither used violence or pecuniary influence, whatever has been suggested to the contrary; and here it is impossible for me to forbear most solemnly declaring, in the presence of the court and the world, that the unhappy man who was convicted for suffering me to escape, was neither wilfully, or wittingly, consenting thereto; if I was of a disposition to rejoice at the calamity of a fellow creature, I perhaps had some reason for it there; for this poor man, instead of doing me any kindness, was perhaps one of the greatest enemies I had in the world, so far, gentlemen of the jury, as bringing up my name constantly in the minds of the public every night at the play-house; and if I was two hundred miles from London, if I was at any part of the universe, it was immaterial to him; this was still done; it was his constant rule. It is true, that the unhappy man was convicted on evidence; for Townshend swore that he must know of my retreat. Gentlemen of the jury, this poor man was a tradesman, and a shopkeeper; this took up his attention in the day, and in the evening he attended his duty as constable; and he was, beside that, an old infirm man; and perhaps, in the best of his days, he never possessed that keenness of sight which they do who are runners by profession; and I trust, gentlemen, that some little attention will be paid to what I say on this occasion; I have now no longer any interest from it; and he, poor man, can bear no part of it; he is freed now from the strife of life, and not entangled with the perplexities of justice; but it is a tribute due to the memory of an unfortunate man, and I think myself bound to pay it, whatever my own case may be. And, gentlemen of the jury, it is with very great concern indeed, that I find myself under the necessity to say anything which perhaps may appear invidious or impertinent; I wish not to say anything that may look like a reflection on the conduct of the prosecutor; and if his memory had not been of the strange nature that I know it to be, I certainly would not say anything on the occasion; but it is a memory of the most convenient nature; for it can forget circumstances which happened, because they were in my favour; and can fancy others which never did happen, and it can remember only those which may injure and tend to convict me: I therefore, gentlemen, am compelled to say something about the conduct of the prosecutor; the veneration I feel for the wisdom and beneficence of the court, whose judgment restored me to the dearest privilege of the subject, the trial by jury, will not permit me to say anything concerning the law itself, and but little concerning the prosecution; yet thus much I hope I may be allowed to say without incurring the displeasure of the court; that outlawry is the greatest possible advantage that can be taken by the law of this country, that it sets aside the invaluable privilege of the subject, the trial by jury, and condemns a man to death unheard; that it was an advantage which the prosecutor derived from real ignorance on my part; that the prosecutor, if he had been the most vindictive, and the most cruel man that ever lived in this country, could not have attempted to do more against the blackest traitor, or the most foul murderer that ever appeared in the shape of human nature. Gentlemen of the jury, I am very far from attempting to extenuate the offence I am charged with; I am conscious of its enormity; I never will commit it; but I hope I may be allowed to say, that there is an immutable distinction in crimes; that policy and humanity demand the preservation of that distinction; if I had been the most violent, if I had been the most inhuman man that ever lived, it was impossible that Mr. Le Mesurier could have proceeded to greater extremity than he has done with respect to me. Gentlemen of the jury, if Mr. Le Mesurier had wished to have impressed you with an idea of his candour, he might effectually have done it, by waving that advantage which ignorance on my part gave; and had he, instead of calling an unfortunate fellow-creature before the judgment-seat, to demand sentence of death against him, and to urge it with all the rigour that a furious mind could dictate: had he omitted this in a moment when the most liberal and humane sentiments seemed to prevail in every part of the world; had he done this, you might have had some opinion of his candour; it would not have tarnished the lustre of his beneficence, or diminished the fame of his moderation and modesty. The language of Mr. Le Mesurier, the counsel, I will not much mention; I am convinced it speaks for itself, and will operate more in my favour in any liberal mind, than anything I can say against it: and perhaps he has been led to such vehemence, by being at once the brother and counsel of the prosecutor: and I wish, I wish, gentlemen of the jury, that Mr. Le Mesurier may not have been advised to such extremity from a quarter, where, of all others, it ought not to have proceeded: public justice is a good and necessary thing, but there is something due to individual justice; and a persecuting spirit should never be suffered to overpower the sacred rights of truth and humanity. And permit me humbly to observe, that the question is not now, what the private opinion of individuals concerning George Barrington may be, but whether there is, or is not, that full, clear, and unequivocal evidence which the wisdom of ages has established as the criterion for jurors to decide by, and which ought never to be departed from, in any man's case whatever. To strain a point to acquit, may proceed from Godlike motives; and perhaps men of the most vindictive tempers must respect, in others, the benevolent impulse; but to strain a point to condemn, is repugnant to justice, to conscience, and to humanity.

Here the learned Judge ASHHURST summed up the evidence, and added the following observations: He said, there are some facts arising from Mr. Le Mesurier's evidence, which seem to apply pretty closely to the case of the prisoner; there is one fact particularly, which came out upon the cross-examination, which may be material for your consideration; that is, that Mr. Le Mesurier told you, at the time he felt his purse move, the prisoner was standing behind him, but his hand was close to his pocket: now to be sure, in the natural position one would expect for a man who stood behind another person, it is not very probable that his hand could he so far advanced before Mr. Le Mesurier as to be at his breeches-pocket; therefore that observation, is point of probability, seems to apply very hard against the prisoner; he tells you further, that, the moment he felt his purse moving in his pocket, he instantly took his hand from that part which was over his purse, and caught hold of the wrist of somebody that was near his breeches-pocket; that somebody, whoever it was, to be sure, in point of probability, does appear the most likely person to whom we could attribute it; he kept hold of the hand, and turned round, and with his other hand he seized on the person to whom the hand belonged, which proved to be the prisoner at the bar: these, gentlemen, to be sure, are strong circumstances; it has been imputed to Mr. Le Mesurier, that he had, at the time he went to Bow-street-office, said, when he was told he must go to the office, It is to no purpose for me to go to the office, I know nothing about it; but he positively denies that he held any such language; he says, as near as he can guess, what he said was this, that he seized a person's hand near his pocket, which appeared to be the prisoner's, and therefore he believed him to be the person. Therefore, gentlemen, it is for you, on the whole of this evidence, to consider whether the prisoner is, or is not, guilty of the crime that is now imputed to him: as to any general knowledge you may have of the prisoner, or of his character, that you are to lay totally out of the case on the present occasion; for every cause must be tried by its own circumstances; therefore you are to consider now only of the particular evidence, and how it must apply. Now, if you believe the account given by the prosecutor, that at the time the purse moved in his pocket, he immediately took hold of the prisoner's hand close by his breeches-pocket; and more particularly, if you believe that the prisoner was standing behind him at the time with his hand near his pocket, I am sorry to say it does amount to very strong circumstantial proof, in regard to the prisoner's being guilty of the fact: there has been no evidence called to contradict the account that he has given. Gentlemen, it is your duty to consider on the whole evidence; if you are satisfied that the prisoner is not guilty of the crime, then certainly you ought to acquit him; but if, from all the circumstances laid together, you think they do so strongly apply to the prisoner, that he is guilty; in that case you will find him so. Gentlemen, there is one thing that I ought to inform you of; indeed, it was given up by the counsel, which is the capital part of the charge; for it was laid to be stolen privily from his person. Now there have been determinations, that, whenever the person is sensible of the tiling at the time, that that takes off the capital part; therefore the capital part you will acquit him of; but it is still open to the larceny, though the capital part is given up by the counsel on the opening.

Verdict of the Jury. NOT GUILTY.