Strolling player turned housebreaker, executed 9th October, 1732
JOSEPH Powis was a native of St. Martin's in the Fields; and his father dying while he was an infant, his mother married a smith in St. Martin's Lane, who was remarkable for his ingenuity.
The father-in-law going to Harfleur, in Normandy, with many other skilful artists, to be concerned in an iron manufactory, took Powis with him when he was only eight years of age.
They had not been long here before the father-in-law received a letter, advising him of the death of his wife; on which he left the boy to the care of an Englishman, and came to London in order to settle his affairs, but soon returned to Normandy.
The scheme in which they had embarked failing, they came back to England, and the man, marrying a second wife, took a shop in Chancery Lane, London, and sent young Powis to school, where he made such progress, that a little time gave hope of his becoming a good Latin scholar.
But he had not been long at school before his father-in-law took him home, to instruct him in his own business; and hence his misfortunes appear to have arisen; for such was his attachment to literature, that, when he was sent of an errand, he constantly loitered away his time reading at the stall of some bookseller.
When he had been about four years with his father, two lads of his acquaintance persuaded him to take a stroll into the country, and they wandered through the villages adjacent to London for about a week, in a condition almost starving, sometimes begging food to relieve the extremities of hunger, and finally compelled by distress to return to town.
The father-in-law of Powis received him kindly, forgave his fault, and he continued about a year longer with him; but, having read a number of plays, he had imbibed such romantic notions as disqualified him for business.
Inspired with an idea of going on the stage, he offered his services to Mr. Rich, then manager of Covent Garden Theatre; but, having repeated some parts of the tragedy of Julius Caesar, Rich told him he was disqualified for the stage, and advised him to attend to his trade.
Soon after this Powis a second time quitted his father-in-law, and rambled through the country some days; but returning on a Sunday, in the absence of the family, he broke open a chest, and, taking out his best clothes, again decamped.
Nothing being missed except the boy's clothes, it was easily judged who must be the thief; wherefore the father-in-law went with a constable in search of the youth, whom he took before a magistrate, in the hope of making him sensible of his folly.
The justice threatening to commit him unless he 'made a proper submission, he promised to go home and do so; but, dropping his father-in-law in the street, he went to an acquaintance, to whom he communicated his situation, and asked his advice how to act. His friend advised him to go home, and discharge his duty; but this not suiting his inclination, and it being now the time of Bartholomew Fair, he engaged with one Miller to act a part in a farce exhibited at Smithfield.
His next adventure was the going to Dorking, in Surrey, with one Button, a strolling player, by whom he was taught to expect great things; but Button, having previously affronted the inhabitants, met with no encouragement; on which they proceeded to Horsham, in Sussex, where they were equally unsuccessful.
Powis now slept in a hay-loft, near the kitchen of an inn, and, being almost starved, he used to get in at the window and steal the victuals while the family were in bed. He likewise stole a new pair of shoes belonging to the landlord; but the latter, soon discovering the thief, took the shoes from him, and gave him an old pair instead.
About this time Button took Powis's clothes from him, and gave him others that were little better than rags.
Having left this town, they put up at an inn, where the landlord obliged the company to sleep in the hay loft, admitting none but the manager to come within the house. At night Powis crept into the kitchen, devoured the remains of a cold pie, and stole a pair of boots and a pair of stockings, with which he retreated into the hay- loft. He continued to steal provisions several nights, till the landlord and Button watched, with loaded guns, in expectation of the thief, who, however, came not that night.
Powis, having obtained a few halfpence by one of his petty thefts, stole out from the hay-loft to drink at a public house; but the other landlord, being there, knew the boots to be his; on which our unfortunate adventurer hastily retreated to his loft, where he expected to lie secure; but the landlord, Button, and others, following him, seized him, and took him into the kitchen for examination. He readily confessed that he had stolen the victuals; on which he was delivered into the custody of two countrymen to guard him till the next day, when it was proposed to take him before a magistrate.
The family having retired to bed, Powis pretended to fall fast asleep; on which one of his guards said, 'How the poor fellow rests, notwithstanding his misfortunes;' to which the other said, 'Let me sleep an hour, and then I will watch while you sleep.'
In a few minutes both the men were asleep; on which Powis, thinking to escape, attempted to put on the boots; but, making some noise, the landlord heard him, and, coming downstairs, Powis affected to slumber as before. The landlord awakened the guardians, and bade them take more care of their prisoner; which having promised to do, they soon fell asleep again.
Our adventurer now took the boots in his hand, and, getting out of the inn-yard, ran with the utmost expedition till he got out of the town, and then drawing on the boots, he proceeded on his journey to London. However, he missed his way, and, getting on a common, knew not how to proceed; but going into a cow-house, in which was a quantity of flax, he lay down to rest. In the morning the owner of the flax found him, and inquiring what business he had there, Powis said that, being intoxicated, he had lost his way: on which the other directed him into the right road, and our hero hastened forward, in the apprehension of being pursued.
Towards evening be arrived near Dorking, but did not enter the town till it was nearly dark. As he was going through the street he heard a door open; and, turning round, a woman, who had a candle in her hand, called him; and, on his demanding what she wanted, she said to another woman, 'Sure enough it is he.'
This woman, who had washed the players' linen, said that two men had been in pursuit of him; and that his best way would be to avoid the high road, and get to London some other way with all possible expedition.
Powis immediately took this advice, and, quitting the turnpike- road, got to a farm-house, where he stole some books and other trifles, ate some provisions, and then proceeded towards London, stopping at Stockwell, at a house kept by the mother of his father- in-law's wife. All this happened in the night; but, knowing the place, he went into the back yard, and lay down to sleep on some straw.
Observing several threshers come to work in the morning, he concealed himself under the straw till night, when he crept out, went to a public house, drank some beer, and returned to his former lodging.
Inspired by the liquor he had drank, he began to sing, which drawing some people round him, they conducted him into the house.
His mother-in-law, happening to be there on a visit, spoke with great kindness to him, and advised him to remain there till she had communicated the affair to her husband.
In a few days the father-in-law came to him, and expressed his readiness to take him home, if he would but attend his business, and decline his present vagrant course of life. This he readily agreed to do, and continued steady during the winter; but on the approach of summer he again left his friends, and rambled about near a month, subsisting on the casual bounty of his acquaintance.
Falling into company with Joseph Paterson, whom he had known among the strolling players, Paterson engaged him to perform a part in the tragedy of 'The Earls of Essex,' at Windmill Hill, near Moorfields, which was then the place of resort for the lower class of spouters in and near London.
The part of Lord Burleigh being assigned to Powis, and it being intimated in the printed bills that this part was to be performed by 'A young gentleman, being his first appearance on the stage,' the curiosity of the public was somewhat excited, so that there was a full house. Unfortunately, Lord Burleigh was dressed in the shabbiest manner; and, being little better than a compound of rags and dirt, it was with some difficulty the minister of state went through his part, amidst the laughter and ridicule of the spectators.
Returning home through Ludgate Street, after the play, he saw a gentleman who said he had dropped three guineas, but had picked up one of them. Powis, happening to find the other two, kept one for himself, and gave the other to the owner, who, not knowing that he had retained one, insisted on his drinking a glass of wine, and thanked him for his civility.
Being stopped one night in Chancery Lane by a violent shower of rain, he climbed over a gate, and got under the shelter of a pent- house belonging to the Six Clerks' Office, where he remained till morning, when the clerks came to their business, and he was then afraid to appear, lest he should be taken for a thief from the shabbiness of his dress.
Leaning against a plastered wall, part of it broke; but, as the place he stood in was very dark, no one observed it; on which he resolved to profit by the accident; in consequence of this, he, at night, made the breach wider, and got into the office, whence he stole six guineas, and about fifty shillings in silver.
Having spent this money, he determined to join his old companions on Windmill Hill; and, in his way thither, he observed a fellow pick a countryman's pocket of a bag of money in Smithfield; and a cry of 'Stop thief!' being immediately circulated, the pickpocket dropped the bag, which Powis took up unobserved, and, retiring to a public house, examined its contents, which he found to amount to above fifty pounds.
Having put the money in his pocket, he threw away the bag, and retired to his lodgings. This money, a greater sum than he had ever before possessed, was soon spent in extravagance, and he was again reduced to great extremities.
Thus distressed, he got into the area of a coffee-house in Chancery Lane, and attempted to force the kitchen window but, not succeeding, he secreted himself in the coal-cellar till the following evening, when he got into the house, and hid himself in a hole behind the chimney.
When the family was gone to rest, he stole some silver spoons, and about three shillings' worth of half pence from the bar, and, having now fasted thirty hours, he ate and drank heartily; but, hearing a person come downstairs, he pulled off his shoes, and, retiring hastily, got into a hole where broken glass was kept, by which his feet were cut in a shocking manner.
It happened to be only the maid-servant who came downstairs; and, going into the kitchen, Powis put on his shoes, and ran through the coffee-room into the street.
Being again reduced, he broke into the Chancery Office, where be stole about four pounds ten shillings, which being spent, he looked out for a fresh supply. Going to St. Dunstan's Church, at the time of morning prayers, he hid himself in the gallery till night, and then stole some of the prayer-books, which he proposed to have carried off the next morning, when the sexton appeared, who, being more terrified than the thief, ran to procure the assistance of another man; but in the mean time Powis bad so secreted himself that they could not find him after a search of two hours; they therefore at length gave it up, concluding that he had got out through one of the windows. However, he remained in the church all that day, and at the hour of prayer next morning went off with as many books as produced him a guinea.
On the following night he visited an acquaintance in Ram Alley, Fleet Street, where he observed a woman deposit some goods in a room, the door of which she fastened with a padlock. On this be concealed himself in the cellar till towards morning, when he opened the padlock with a crooked nail, and stole two gold rings and a guinea, being baulked in his expectation of a much more valuable prize.
One of the prayer-books which he had stolen from St. Dunstan's Church he sold to a bookseller in the Strand; and, while the lady who had lost it was inquiring at the bookseller's if such a book had fallen into his hands, Powis happened to stop to speak with a gentleman at the door; on which the bookseller said, 'There is the man who sold it me!' and the lady replied, 'He is a thief, and has stolen it!'
The bookseller, calling Powis into his shop, asked if he had sold him that book, which he acknowledged; and, being desired to recollect how he had obtained it, he said he could not; on which the bookseller threatened to have him committed to prison; but the lady, now earnestly looking at him, asked if his name was Powis. He said it was; on which she burst into tears, and said, 'I am sorry for you, and for your poor father; you are the cause of all his unhappiness.' The bookseller, happening likewise to know Powis's father, delivered the book to the lady, and permitted the young thief to depart, on promise to pay for it on the following day: but the day of payment never came.
A few nights after this he climbed up the sign-post belonging to a pastry-cook in Fleet Street, and got in at a chamber-window, whence he descended into the shop; but, not finding any money in the till, stole only two or three old books, and filled his pockets with tarts, with which he decamped.
Calling some days afterwards at the same shop to buy a tart, he found the people of the house entertaining themselves with the idea of the disappointment the thief had met with: and a lady who lodged in the house produced her gold watch, saying she supposed that had been the object of his search.
This circumstance encouraged him to make another attempt; wherefore, on the following night, he again ascended the sign-post, and got in at the window; but hearing a person coming downstairs without shoes, he got back to the sign-post, descended, and ran off. He was instantly pursued, but escaped through the darkness of the night.
Chagrined at this disappointment, he sauntered into the fields, and lay down under a hay-rick. He slumbered awhile; but, being distressed in mind, he imagined he heard a voice crying, 'Run, run, fly for your life; for you are pursued, and if you are taken you will be hanged.' He started with wild affright, and large drops of sweat ran down his face, occasioned by the agitation of his mind.
Finding that he had only been disturbed by a dream, he again lay down; but the stings of his conscience continuing to goad him, he dreamt that a person came to him, saying, 'Young man, you must go away from hence; for, were I to suffer you to remain here, I should expect a judgment to fall on me: so go away, or I will fetch a constable, who shall oblige you to go.' Being again terrified, he walked round the hay-rick, calling out 'Who is there?' but receiving no answer, he lay down once more, and dreamt that his father-in- law stood by him, and spoke as follows:-- 'O son! will you never take warning till justice overtakes you? The time will come when you will wish, but too late, that you had been warned by me.'
Unable now to sleep, through the agonies of his mind, he wandered about till morning, and had formed a resolution of returning to his father-in-law; but as he was going to him he met an old acquaintance, who paid him a debt of a few shillings; and, going to drink with him, Powis soon forgot the virtuous resolutions he bad formed.
On parting from this acquaintance he went to the house of another, where he slept five hours; and then, being extremely hungry, went to a public house, where he supped, and spent all his money, except eightpence.
Thus reduced, he resolved to make a fresh attempt on the Chancery Office, for which purpose he broke through the wall, but found no booty.
In the mean time his father-in-law exerted his utmost endeavours to find him, to consult his safety; and, having met with him, told him it would be imprudent for him to stay longer in London, as people began to be suspicious of him: wherefore he advised him to go to Cambridge, and work as a journeyman with a smith of his acquaintance.
Young Powis consenting, the father bought him new clothes, furnished him with some good books, and gave him money to proceed on his journey. He now left the old gentleman; but soon afterwards meeting with six strolling players, one of whom he had formerly known, they sat down to drinking; at which they continued till all Powis's money was spent, and then he sold his new clothes.
Our young adventurer now became so hardened in guilt that there appeared no prospect of his reformation. One Sunday morning early he attempted to break open the house of a baker in Chancery Lane; but the family being alarmed, he was obliged to decamp without his booty, though not without being known. This affair coming to the knowledge of the father, he commissioned some friends to tell the boy, if they should meet him, that he was still ready to receive him with kindness, if he would mend his conduct.
Powis, being now very much distressed, applied to his still generous relation, who advised him to go to the West Indies, as the most effectual method of being out of danger; and he promised to furnish him with necessaries for the voyage.
Accepting the offer, Powis was properly fitted out, and sent on board a ship in the river, where he was confined in the bold, to prevent his escaping. In a day or two afterwards he was allowed the liberty of the ship; but most of the seamen now going on shore to take leave of their friends, he resolved to seize the opportunity of making his escape, and of taking some thing of value with him.
Waiting till it was night, he broke open a chest belonging to a passenger, and, having stolen a handsome suit of clothes, he took the opportunity of the people on watch going to call others to relieve them; and, dropping down the side of the ship, got into a boat; but, having only a single oar, he was unable to steer her;, and, after striving a considerable time, was obliged to let her drive; the consequence of which was, that she ran on shore below Woolwich.
Quitting the boat, he set off towards London; but near Deptford he met with two men, who asked him to sell his wig; on which he went to a public house with them, where they told him that a friend of theirs had been robbed of such a wig, and they suspected him to be the robber. Powis saw through the artifice, and, calling the landlord, desired that a constable might be sent for to take the villains into custody; but the men immediately threw down their reckoning, and ran off in the utmost haste.
Our adventurer, proceeding to London, changed his clothes, and took to his former practice of housebreaking; in which, however, he was remarkably unsuccessful. Strolling one night to the house where he had formerly been at Stockwell, he got in at the window, and stole a bottle of brandy, a groat coat, and some other articles; but the family being alarmed, he was pursued and taken.
As be was known to the people of the house, they threatened to convey him to the ship; but be expressed so much dread at the consequence, that they conducted him to his father-in-law, whose humanity once more induced him to receive the returning prodigal with kindness.
Powis now lived regularly at home about nine weeks, when, having received about a guinea as Christmas-box money, he got into company, and spent the whole; after which he renewed his former practices.
Having concealed himself under some hay in a stable in Chancery Lane, be broke into a boarding-school adjoining to it, whence he stole some books and a quantity of linen: and, soon after this, he broke into the house of an attorney, and, getting into a garret, struck a light; but some of the family being alarmed, there was an outcry of 'Thieves!' A man ascending a ladder being observed by Powis, he attempted to break through the tiling; but, failing in this, the other cried 'There is the thief!' Terrified by these words, he got into a gutter, whence he dropped down to a carpenter's yard adjoining, but could get no farther.
While he was in this situation, the carpenter, going into the yard with a candle, took him into custody, and lodged him in the roundhouse; but on the following day his father-in-law exerted himself so effectually, that the offence was forgiven, and he was once more taken home to the house of this ever-indulgent friend.
After he had been three months at home, the father in-law was employed to do some business for Mr. Williams, a Welsh gentleman of fortune, who having brought his lady to London to lie in, she died in child-bed; and it was determined that she should be buried in Wales. Hereupon Powis's father-in-law was sent for to examine all the locks, &c. that the effects might be safe in the absence of Mr. Williams.
Our youth, being employed as a journeyman in this business, found a box of linen that was too full, on which he took out some articles. In removing the linen he found a small box, remarkably heavy, which, on examination, appeared to contain diamonds, jewels, rings, a gold watch, and other articles, to the amount of more than 200L., all which he stole, and put the box in its place. This being done, he called the maid to see that all was safe, and delivered her the key of the larger box.
Being possessed of this booty, Powis consulted an acquaintance as to the method of disposing of it, who advised him to melt the gold, and throw the jewels into the Thames, This being agreed upon, the acquaintance kept the jewels; and the gold being sold for eleven guineas, Powis had seven of them, which he soon squandered away.
About a fortnight after the effects were stolen Powis was apprehended on suspicion of the robbery, and committed to Newgate; and, being tried at the next sessions, was sentenced to be transported for seven years; the jury having given a verdict that he was guilty of stealing to the value of thirty-nine shillings.
He lay in Newgate a considerable time; till at length his father-in- law, after repeated entreaties, and a promise of a total reformation of manners, made such interest, that he was burnt in the hand, and set at large.
Yet again was this ungrateful boy taken under his parent's roof, where he continued about seven months; when, meeting with one of his dissolute companions, he spent all his money, and was then afraid to return home.
He now refrained some time from acts of theft; and, taking lodgings in an alley in Fleet Street, subsisted by borrowing money of his acquaintance. Soon afterwards, however, he broke open a trunk at his lodgings, and stole some linen, which he pawned for five shillings and sixpence.
On the next day the landlord charged him with the robbery; but, not intending to prosecute him, was content with recovering his linen from the pawnbrokers, and took Powis's word for making good the deficient money.
In less than a week after the adjustment of this affair our young, but hardened, villain broke open the coffee-house in Chancery Lane which we have already mentioned, and stole a few articles, which produced him about thirty shillings: and soon afterwards he broke into the Chancery Office, where be stole two books, which he sold for half a crown.
On the following evening he went again to the office, and hid himself under the staircase; but, being heard to cough by a man who had been left to watch, be was taken into custody, and conveyed to a tavern in the neighbourhood, where his father-in-law attended, and pleaded so forcibly in his behalf, that he was permitted to go home with him for the night.
On the following day some gentlemen came to examine him, when he denied the commission of a variety of crimes with which he had been charged; but the gentlemen, having consented to his escape for this time, advised him not to appear again in that neighbourhood, as the Masters in Chancery had given strict orders for prosecuting him.
After receiving some good advice from his father-in-law, he was recommended to work with a smith in Milford Lane, in the Strand: but Powis had a brother who called upon him a few days afterwards, and told him that a warrant was issued to apprehend him for robbing the Chancery, which obliged him to abscond.
Strolling one evening in the Spa Fields, near Islington, some constables apprehended him as a vagrant, and lodged him, with several others, in New Prison; and on the following day most of the prisoners were discharged by a magistrate, and Powis was ordered to be set at liberty; but, not having money to pay his fees, he was taken back to the prison, where he remained a few days longer, and was then set at liberty by the charity of a gentleman, who bade him 'thank God, and take care never to get into trouble again.'
In a short time after his discharge he broke into the Earl of Peterborough's house at Chelsea, and stole some trifling articles from the kitchen, which he sold for four shillings; and on the following night he robbed another house in the same neighbourhood of some effects, which he sold for ten shillings.
This trifling sum being soon spent, he broke open a house in Lincoln's Inn Fields, where he got a considerable quantity of money; and, to prevent persons who knew him from suspecting that be was the thief, he forged a letter, as coming from his grandfather in Yorkshire, purporting that he had sent him such a sum.
In a short time afterwards, at a kind of ball given by one of his companions to celebrate his birthday, Powis fell in love with a girl who made one of the company.
The girl paying no attention to his addresses, Powis waited on her mother, and, after some conversation with her, was permitted to pay his personal respects to the daughter, to whom he pretended that his grandfather in Yorkshire would leave him a large sum of money; and, in proof of what he said, he showed her some counterfeit letters, appearing to have the postmark on them.
The girl made no objection to him as a husband; but said it would be prudent in him to visit his grandfather, and ask his consent to the match, which would contribute to her peace of mind. On this he left her, and broke open a house that evening, whence he stole a few things, which he sold for fifteen shillings, and, calling on her the next day, took his leave, as if preparing for his journey.
His plan was to commit some robbery by which he might obtain a considerable sum, and then, concealing himself for some time, return to his mistress, and pretend that his grandfather had given him the money.
Going to see 'The Beggars' Opera,' he was greatly shocked at the appearance of Macheath on the stage in fetters, and could not forbear reflecting what might he his own future fate; yet about a week afterwards he broke open a cook's shop, and stole some articles, the sale of which produced him a guinea.
On the following day he called at Newgate, treated the prisoners to the amount of seven shillings, and, on his quitting the prison, met two girls whom he knew; and with them he went to Hampstead, where he treated them to the amount of twelve shillings and sixpence; so that only eighteen pence remained of his last ill-gotten guinea.
On the following day Powis went to the Black Raven, in Fetter Lane, where he observed the landlord put some gold into a drawer, of which be determined, if possible, to possess himself. About midnight he went away, having first stolen the pin that fastened the cellar-window.
Returning at two in the morning, he got into the cellar, and attempted to open the door of the tap room; but, failing in this, he was about to return by the way he had entered, when a watchman coming by, and seeing the window open, alarmed the family. Powis now escaped into a carpenter's yard, and hid himself: but the landlord coming down, and several persons attending, be was apprehended; not, however, till one person had run a sword through his leg, and another struck him a blow on the head that almost deprived him of his senses; circumstances of severity which could not be justified, as he made no resistance.
The offender was lodged in the Compter for the present, and, being removed to Newgate, was brought to his trial at the Old Bailey, convicted of the burglary, and received sentence of death. The jury, considering the cruelty with which he had been treated, recommended him to mercy: however, the royal favour was not extended to him, as he had before been sentenced to transportation.
When brought up to receive sentence, be begged to be represented as an object worthy of the royal lenity; but was told not to expect such indulgence. He likewise wrote to his sweetheart to exert her influence, which she promised, but could do nothing to serve him.
He was hanged at Tyburn on the 9th of October, 1732, along with William Shelton, at the age of twenty-two years, after admonishing the spectators to take warning by his fatal end, and expressing the utmost detestation of the irregularities of his life.
The case of this malefactor will afford a very striking lesson to youth. In the former part of his life we see the miserable situation of a strolling player; and surely the distresses he encountered will be deemed enough to terrify thoughtless young men, who are fond of what is called spouting, from engaging in this vagrant course of life.
The terrors of Powis's conscience when be lay down to sleep under the hay-rick show that there is no peace to the wicked. One self- approving hour, the consequence of having discharged our duty, must afford more solid satisfaction than whole months spent in that riot and debauchery which may be purchased with ill-gotten wealth.
Nothing, surely, can be equal to the goodness with which Powis was treated by his father-in-law. His kindness appears to have been almost without example, and what could scarcely have been expected even from a real parent.
This offender, then, sinned against all advice, all warning, all indulgence: but we trust his fate will have a forcible effect on young people who may read this narrative. We hope it will, in a particular manner, teach them the necessity of duty to their parents; and that the only way to be happy in advanced life is to be virtuous and religious while they are young.