London Lives Revealed: George Barrington
All this week on fifteeneightyfour we are reconstructing the lives of eighteenth century Londoners who feature in, London Lives a new book which examines the daily lives of the poor and criminal in eighteenth century London, including thieves, paupers, prostitutes and highwaymen, and shows how their actions influenced the pace and direction of change in social policy.
The Life of a Pickpocket
George Barrington (or Waldron), one of London’s most notorious pickpockets, was born in Maynooth, Co. Kildare, Ireland, on 14 May 1755. His family name was Waldron, his father was an artisan silversmith, and his mother (neé Naish or Naith) a mantua maker. His natural father may have been a British army officer surnamed Barrington. Apprenticed to an apothecary, he showed sufficient aptitude for learning that he was provided with an education at Dublin Blue Coat School. At the age of sixteen, he absconded after stabbing a fellow pupil in a fight, joined a band of travelling players and learned the art of pickpocketing, at which he became highly skilled.1
When his thieving partner was arrested in 1773, George fled to England, taking the name of Barrington. He was able to persuade well-placed people to introduce him in London society as an actor and a gentleman of Anglo-Irish descent (though sometimes he claimed to be a surgeon). He soon became notorious for his thieving activities amongst members of genteel society in churches, theatres, and on race courses. His activities were frequently reported in newspapers; which detailed thefts of great value, that nevertheless failed to result in an arrest, or prosecution, normally because the victims did not press the matter.2
In December 1776, he was arrested for the theft of a pair of silver studs, a silk purse, half a guinea and three shillings and six pence from a widow, Ann Dudman, in the pit of Drury Lane Playhouse. After being held in Tothill Fields Bridewell, he was tried for larceny at the Old Bailey on 15 January 1777, found guilty and sentenced to 3 years hard labour on the hulks at Woolwich. In this case, despite being described as “the genteelest thief ever remembered seen at the Old Bailey”, a witness stated he lived in lodgings in the markedly un-genteel neighbourhood of Charing Cross.
Barrington served less than a year on the hulks, receiving a pardon as a first offender at the end of 1777. In April 1778, he was again on trial at the Old Bailey, charged with pickpocketing a watch, £3, a silk watch string and a glass seal on 15 March 1778 from Elizabeth Ironmonger in a crowded church where a special sermon was being delivered. Found guilty of theft (but not of pickpocketing) he was sentenced to five years hard labour on the hulks. At this trial he made the first of what would become his characteristically long, florid and emotional speeches of the sort the Old Bailey reporters and the press rejoiced in and which would set the tone for his later writing and publication ventures.3
Having served part of this sentence, he appealed for remission claiming that it was too severe and had made him extremely ill. This was granted in April 1782 on condition that he exiled himself from England for life. He was subsequently detected in his normal activities in Ireland and Scotland, and in December 1782 was apprehended in London for a theft in Drury Lane Theatre. He was brought before the court at the Old Bailey for contravening the terms of his pardon. In another inventive speech, he stated that he did not realise his exile was for life and that he was now so ill he could not go back to the hulks. He was sent to Newgate Prison to complete his original five year sentence.
Nonetheless, a year later, in February 1784, Barrington again appeared before the Old Bailey for pickpocketing a silk purse and a considerable sum of money in Covent Garden Opera tea room. This was followed by appearances in February 1785, charged with grand larceny of a watch, chain and seals in Drury Lane Theatre, and in December 1789, for pickpocketing a purse and a great deal of money in the same location. In all these cases he was found not guilty, either from want of identification, lack of direct evidence, or as a result of a lengthy delay resulting in key witnesses becoming unavailable. He was also represented by well-known counsel, who successfully challenged the jury, and set the scene for Barrington to perfect his increasingly sophisticated court-room speech-making.
His last appearance at the Old Bailey was in September 1790, charged with the theft of a watch and associated items from Henry Hare Townsend Esq. at Enfield Race Course. Despite the attempts of William Garrow, the noted defence counsel, and another very long and flowery speech begging not to be executed (he was not in danger of this since the crime for which he was tried was not capital), he was found guilty and sentenced to transportation for seven years to New South Wales.
In March 1791 George Barrington left for Australia on the convict ship Active, arriving in Sydney in September of the same year. Although absent from England, his notoriety continued. In a popular ballad, The Jolly Lad’s Trip to Botany Bay, in which convicts treat transportation as a lark, the convicts say that the first thing they will do when they get to Australia is appoint a king, “for who knows but it may be the noted Barrington”.4 Despite the stories growing up around him, crediting him (probably falsely) with many publications, letters, journals and theatre pieces, it is clear that transportation dramatically changed his life.5 In 1792 he received a conditional pardon. He was appointed Superintendent of Convicts at Paramatta, and purchased large amounts of land at Paramatta and near the Hawkesbury River. By 1794 was also Chief Constable at Paramatta. He received a full pardon in 1796. In 1801, he retired to one of his Paramatta farms (because of ill-health) with a pension, and died on 27 December 1804.6
This biography is written by Deirdre Palk and is taken from www.londonlives.org
- Family Search
- The Jolly Lad’s Trip to Botany Bay. In Holloway, John and Black, Joan, eds, Later English Broadside Ballads, 2 vols. 1975-79, i, pp. 145-46.
- Australian Dictionary of Biography
- Garvey, Nathan. The Celebrated George Barrington: A Spurious Author; the Book Trade and Botany Bay. Sydney, 2008.
- Rickard, Suzanne. Barrington [formerly Waldron], George (1755-1804). Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (requires subscription). 2004, accessed 3 June 2010.
- Rickard, Suzanne, ed. George Barrington’s Voyage to Botany Bay: Retelling a Convict’s Travel Narrative of the 1790s. Leicester, 2001.
2 See Suzanne Rickard, ed., George Barrington’s Voyage to Botany Bay: Retelling a Convict’s Travel Narrative of the 1790s (Leicester, 2001), pp. 7-9 for his thefts from the Russian Count Gregory Orloff in Covent Garden Theatre, and from the Earl of Mexborough at a social levée.
6 Australian Dictionary of Biography.