New business opportunities, 19th-century style

Want to rent some housebreaking tools? Never thought of burglar-rental as a way of earning a living?

Mr Zachariah Philips of White Hart Yard, Drury Lane, ‘Lends out Pistols to Highwaymen & others by the Night at so much for their use’, while Mr Baker, of One Tun Court, the Strand, ‘Keeps a Drag [cart] & lets it out to Thieves to convey Stolen Property.’ Mr Garratt, of Moor Street, Soho Square, is more of an all rounder, keeping ‘Instruments for Housebreaking to let out.’

Most days historical research is like any other (really nice) job. You go, you look, you read, you make notes, you learn. But sometimes there is a moment when your heart clenches, when you think: Yes, I am as close as I can ever be to touching the ghost of ‘Then’.

One of those moments for me recently was ordering up the notebooks of John Silvester, as they are prosaically catalogued at the British Library. John Silvester (1745–1822) was, even for his day, a notably corrupt and nasty judge, known to exchange lenience in court for sexual favours from attractive accused: a general all around Bad Hat.

These notebooks are not by him, but were, it is thought, owned by him. They are tiny little red leather books, one with a flap, like a purse. One is headed ‘Receivers of Stolen Property particularly from Boys’. Several entries say things like, ‘This man is not known to the Officers’, so they were clearly not written by an official — perhaps they were by an informant.

But the thrill is in the immediacy: this was someone writing down exactly what he or she (most likely he) was seeing. The modern world is barely present in these notes. When addresses are written down, sometimes it is a number and street name, but far more  are along the lines of, ‘opposite the King’s Head Public House in a Street leading out of Winfell Street being the first turning from the Black Hell Flash House’, or ‘in Cow Cross, at a Potatoe Warehouse next door to a Barley Sugar Shop about 30 Houses from the beginning of Cow Cross’.

Reading that there is a woman who pays pennies to small children who steal handkerchiefs, then pawns them for a fraction more: this is real history, real lived life.

And they are in these remarkable survivals, two tiny books, sitting in the British Library. Anyone who wants can go and order them up, read through, and almost touch a world where renting out burglars’ tools was a way to earn a living.

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1 Comment

  1. chris hughes

    March 5, 2011 - 11:20 am

    Those moments of recognition are just incredible. Some years ago I was reading Dickens’ account of his return to Chatham. He bemoaned the fact that the field where he used to play in front of his house has been swallowed up in the railway line and then goes on to list the shops that he knew and visited, one of which was Pickford’s Removals. A few days later I was driving down Ordnance Terrace, past his old house, turned left in front of the station and there, staring at me, on the side of a house was painted an advert for Pickford’s. It raised the hairs on the back of my neck:)!