The Life of JOSHUA CORNWALL
a Thief and Housebreaker
Though vices are undoubtedly the chief instruments that bring unhappy persons to that ignominious death which the Law hath appointed for enormous offences, yet it very often happens that folly rather than wickedness brings them first into the road of ruin; in which, led on by delusive hopes, they continue to run until a disastrous fate overtakes them, and puts an end at once to their vicious race, and to their lives. The criminal whose memoirs at present employ our pen is such an example as I hope, while it entertains, may also instruct my readers to avoid his errors.
This unfortunate man was the son of reputable and honest parents in the town of Brigg in the county of Lincoln. Their circumstances were such as enabled them to give him an education; and the desire they had of doing everything that was possible for their son inclined them not to be wanting in this particular. His mother, was fond of him to a fault, and being permitted by her indulgence to run up and down amongst young people of his own age, riding across the country to friends and other diversions of a like nature, he lost all liking to things of a serious nature, and without thinking how to procure the necessaries of life, was altogether taken up in enjoying those pleasures to which he had the greatest inclination. In the midst of this pleasant situation of things (at least as it appeared to him at that time) the prospect was darkened by the death of his mother. His friends retained for him a due paternal affection, but had no notion of permitting him to go on the life he led, and therefore to break him of that as well as to make him acquainted with an honest method of getting his living, his father put him out apprentice to a baker in Hull.
But as kindness seemed of all things the most fatal to this unhappy man, so the acquaintance and friendship which his master had for Cornwall's family became a new means of leading him into misfortune, for treating the young man rather with a tenderness due to a son than that severity which is usually practised towards apprentices and servants, it gave him an opportunity of renewing his old course of life. Instead of inclining him to behave in a manner which might deserve such lenity, it gave him, on the contrary, occasion frequently to abuse it by running from one dancing bout and merry-making to another, without the least care of his master's business, who out of downright affection forbore to restrain his follies with that harshness which they deserved, and which any other person would have used.
At length, having acquired so great a habit of laziness and so strong an aversion to business that he found it impossible for him to live longer in the country, he came up to London, that great receptacle of those who are either unable or unwilling to live anywhere else. Here he got into service as a footman with several persons of worth, and discharged his duty well (as indeed it was a kind of life which of all others suited him best), so that he obtained a tolerable reputation whereby he got into the service of one Mr. Fenwick, a gentleman of affluent fortune. Here it was that through desire of abounding in money he either drew in others, or was drawn in himself to commit that crime which cost him his life.
It seems that in Mr. Fenwick's family there was a great deal of plate used, which stood on a buffet. This tempted Cornwall, and it is highly likely gave him the first notion of attempting to rob the house. When he had once formed this project he resolved to take in one Rivers, a debauched companion of his, as a partner in the designed theft.
This Rivers was certainly easy enough prevailed on to join in the commission of this fact, and after several meetings to consult upon proper measures, Rivers at last proposed that their scheme should be put in execution as soon as possible; and that he might the more perfectly conceive how it was to be managed, he went home with Cornwall, and looked upon the house. Soon after this they held their last consultation, and Cornwall saying to Rivers that he must bring some other persons to assist him, Rivers made choice of one Girst, and coming with him at the appointed hour, Cornwall in his shirt opened the door and let them in. In the buffet there stood a lighted candle in a silver candle-stick, by which they were directed to the rest of the plate, which as soon as they had taken out, they placed all together upon the carpet, and fell next to rifling Mr. Fenwick's bureau, and took out a great quantity of linen, a lady's lace, the tea equipage, and two silver canisters. Then making it up in a bundle, it was carried to River's lodgings in Vinegar Yard, Drury Lane.
All this could not be performed with so little noise as not to disturb the family. Mr. Fenwick himself heard the noise, being awakened by his wife, who had heard it for some time, but it ceasing they fell asleep again until one of the servants came up in the morning, and told his master that the house had been robbed, the plate taken away, and a window in the back parlour left open, about which, as he could observe no marks of violence, he was led to suspect it was opened by somebody in the family; upon which Cornwall and a maid in the house were immediately thought to have a hand in. However, as there was no sort of proof, Mr. Fenwick forbore seizing them at that time, and contented himself with advertizing his plate; which advertisement coming into the hands of a pawnbroker, to whom a part of it had been pledged, he immediately gave notice that it was pawned to him by Rivers. A warrant being upon this obtained for the searching of River's lodging, a note was there found, directed to Thomas Rivers, Glover, in Guy's Court, Vinegar Yard, Drury Lane, in which were these words:
Let me see you at seven o'clock to-morrow morning, at the Postern Spring, Tower Hill, be sure.
Upon this Cornwall was immediately taken up and Girst readily offered himself an evidence. In a few days after, sessions coming on, Joshua Cornwall and Thomas Rivers were indicted for burglariously breaking the house of Nicholas Fenwick, Esq., and taking thence divers pieces of plate, to the value of eighty-five pounds nineteen shillings, holland shirts to the value of twenty pounds, and other goods of the said Mr. Fenwick, on the 8th day of September, 1730. This indictment being fully proved, the jury found Thomas Rivers guilty thereof. But being dubious whether Joshua Cornwall, as a servant within the house of Mr. Fenwick, could be properly convicted of burglariously breaking into his said master's house, they found their verdict as to him special; which the judges having considered, they were unanimously of opinion that the crime was in its nature a burglary. Whereupon, at the following sessions at the Old Bailey, the criminal was brought to the bar, and being acquainted with their lordships' opinion, received sentence of death.
Under conviction, he behaved himself with great penitence, said he had not been guilty of many of those atrocious crimes commonly practised by such as come to that fatal end whither his folly had led him. At the place of execution he, with great fervency, justified the character of a young woman who had lived fellow-servant with him at Mr. Fenwick's. He declared, as he was a dying man, that she was not in the least privy to the injury done her master, and that he had no other than an acquaintance with her, without either having, or attempting any criminal conversation with her. Having done this justice, he seemed to die with much composure, in the twenty-second year of his age, on the 23rd of December, 1730.
Source: Hayward, Lives of the Most Remarkable Criminals