Executed for high treason, in diminishing the gold coin of the realm, April 3, 1739.
This malefactor, who was a native of Chepstow, in Monmouthshire, was apprenticed to a joiner; but quitting his master's service, he worked some time as a journeyman at the Devizes, in Wiltshire, where he married a wife with a fortune of three hundred pounds.
His wife dying in childbed, he remained at the Devizes a considerable time, during which he dissipated all his wife's fortune, except about forty pounds, with which he came to London, and took lodgings with a widow, who kept a public-house. Roberts soon became so intimate with the widow, that she told him it was necessary he should marry her. He embraced the proposal, imagining that it would procure him a decent establishment in life; but being frequently arrested for debts contracted by his wife previous to the marriage, he sold the household furniture to a broker, and left her to provide for herself.
He now engaged in partnership with his brother, a carpenter in Southwark, and saved a considerable sum of money. He next embarked in business for himself, and obtained a large share of credit, but, when his debts became due, he took lodgings within the rules of the King's Bench, in order to evade their payment.
Even while in this situation he undertook a piece of work by which he made three hundred pounds profit; and might have gained more, but that he quarrelled with his employer. At this period, one Sarah Bristow, who had been transported for a felony, returned after the expiration of a year, and becoming acquainted with Roberts, lived with him as his wife for a considerable time. She went with him to Bristol, where he rented an inn, which he furnished on credit: but one of his London creditors getting notice of his retreat, arrested him, and Roberts standing trial, cast him on some informality in the Writ, he, however, thought it imprudent to remain, and shipping his effects for London, he and Mrs. Bristow came to town, and lodged again within the rules of the Bench.
Notwithstanding his situation, he took an inn at Coventry, but was observed by a timber-merchant named Smith, to whom he owed fifty- five pounds. Mr. Smith finding that Roberts had taken the house, arrested him for the above sum. Roberts found means to compromise this affair; but his other creditors learning whither he had retired, it became necessary to conceal himself.
Roberts, thinking it would be unsafe to remain in Coventry, commissioned Mrs. Bristow to purchase such goods as she could get on credit, with a view to carry them off to some place where they were not known.
He now came to London, leaving Mrs. Bristow to send the goods by a waggon; but some of the creditors, having intelligence of what was intended, attached them.
Mrs. Bristow wrote to Roberts, giving a short account of what had happened; on which he sent one Carter to obtain a full information: but not hearing from him as he expected, Roberts set out for Coventry, notwithstanding the risk to which he exposed himself.
On his arrival he found the house nearly stripped, and Mrs. Bristow and Carter in a high degree of intimacy. However, he did not stay long to examine into the state of affairs, being advised to retire to London, with all expedition.
Roberts now moved the Court of King's Bench for a rule against his creditors, to shew cause why they had attached his goods, and the Court recommending an arbitration, it was awarded that Roberts should receive one hundred and thirty pounds, and give his creditors a bill of sale for the lease and effects: on his receiving this sum, Carter applied to him to borrow twenty pounds, with which he said he could acquire a fortune, by purchasing a liquid that would dissolve gold, but Roberts would not lend him the money; Carter, however, found means to raise it, and took to the practice of diminishing the coin, in which he was so successful that he soon abounded in cash. Roberts became very anxious to know the secret, but the other refusing to discover it, he determined on a practice equally dishonest and dangerous, which was that of filing gold. When he had filed off as much dust as was worth ten pounds, Mrs. Bristow stole the box and sold the contents; after this he employed a person at half-a-crown a day to sell the filings, but, not agreeing together, he determined to act for himself; and, having sold a quantity of dust to a refiner, went to a public-house near Hicks's Hall, kept by a Mr. Rogers, whom he asked to give him a bank-note for some gold. Rogers, on feeling the guineas, found that some of the dust stuck to his fingers; on which he said, "What have we got here? The fellow who filed these guineas ought to be hanged for doing his business in so clumsy a manner." Without saying more, he stepped out, and procured a constable, who took Roberts into custody; but after detaining him six hours, discharged him on his own authority.
Roberts prosecuted the publican and constable for false imprisonment; but failed in the suit, and an evidence in his behalf was committed on a charge of perjury, while the publican was bound to prosecute Roberts, who lodged privately at Islington.
While he was in this retreat, and forming a design to go to Lisbon, Mrs. Bristow brought him a newspaper, in which his person was described; whereupon they went together to Chatham, and thence to Ramsgate, where they met Mrs. Bristow's brother, who was likewise included in the advertisement, and they all went on board a vessel bound for Calais, but quarrelling among themselves, the captain gave orders that they should be landed at Dover. Provoked by this, Roberts threw the captain into the sea, and if the boat had not been sent to take him up, he must infallibly have been drowned. The captain was no sooner on board than Roberts took the helm, and steered the vessel to her port; where Mrs. Bristow's brother making the custom-house officers acquainted with Roberts's character, his boxes were searched, and the implements for filing money found; but he escaped in the mean time to Dunkirk, whence, to avoid pursuit, he went to Ostend, and sending for Mrs. Bristow, they embarked for England, and took lodgings near the Strand.
Roberts could not detach himself from the pursuit of filing money; and took a house at Bath, where he used to work at his occupation during the night,
Going to a chemist's shop to purchase a liquid, he saw a person who knew him, on which he went home, and told Mrs Bristow that he was apprehensive of being taken into custody. Some officers came almost immediately and conveyed him before a justice of peace, who sent notice to London of his being in custody.
When brought to his trial at the Old Bailey, he was convicted on the fullest evidence, and received sentence of death. Till the arrival of the warrant for his execution he scarcely mentioned any circumstances respecting his conduct; but was afterwards more explicit.
On the night before his execution, he acknowledged that he had murdered his first wife during her lying-in.
The second wife went to visit him in prison; but he declined seeing her, alleging that her company would only disturb him in his preparations for that awful state on which he was about to enter. The rest of his conduct was highly becoming his melancholy situation.