The Lives of PETER LEVEE, JOHN FEATHERBY, STEPHEN BURNET, alias BARNET, alias BARNHAM, and THOMAS VAUX
Street-Robbers, Footpads, Thieves, etc.
In the course of these memoirs I have more than once remarked that a ridiculous spirit of vainglory is often the source of those prodigious mischiefs which are committed by those abandoned persons, who addict themselves to open robberies, and the carrying on, as it were, a declared war against mankind. Theft and rapine may to some appear odd subjects for acquiring glory, and yet it is certain that many, especially of the younger criminals, have been chiefly instigated in their most daring attempts from a vain inclination to be much talked of, in order to which this seemed to them the shortest course. But these observations that I have made will be better illustrated from the following lives, than they could have been any other way.
Peter Levee was descended from honest and reputable parents, who gave him a very good education, and afterwards bound him out apprentice to a silk weaver; but such as the perverse disposition of this unfortunate Lad, such his love of gaming, and such his continual inclination to debauched company, that nothing better could be expected from him than what afterwards befell him. Yet his understanding was very tolerable, he did not want a sufficient share of wit, and in a word his capacity altogether might have enabled him to have lived very well, if his prodigious vices had not prevented it by hurrying him into misfortunes. It was remarkable in this criminal that his long habit of carrying in the detestable trade of stealing, to which he had incurred himself in every shape as much as possible, had given so odd a cast to his visage that it was impossible for a man to look him in the face without immediately guessing him to be a rogue.
While yet a boy, he had been so accustomed to confinement in the Compter, especially in Wood Street, that he had contracted a friendship with all the under-officers in that prison, who treated him with great leniency as often as he came there. Picking pockets, sneaking goods out of shops, snatching them through windows, and such other petty facts, were the employments of his junior years. As he grew bigger, he grew riper in all sorts of villainy, though never a fellow had worse luck in dishonest attempts, for he was always detected, and very frequently had gone through the lesser punishments of the Law, such as whipping and hard labour. At one time he lay four years in Newgate for a fine, and this finished the course of his villainous education, for from the time he got out, he never ceased to practice robbing in the streets, and on the roads to the villages near London, until he and his companions fell into the hands of Justice, and went altogether to their last adventure at Tyburn.
John Featherby, the second of these criminals, had received a greater share of education than any of the rest. His father had been a man of tolerable circumstances, and with great care provided that this young fellow should not be ignorant of anything that might be necessary or convenient for him to know in that business for which he designed him, viz., a coach-painter. But he did not live to see him put apprentice to it, which his mother afterwards took care to do, and consequently he had not the misfortune of seeing him live so scandalous a life, and die so shameful a death.
His understanding was tolerable, but his behaviour so rude, boisterous and shocking that he left no room even for that compassion to which all men are naturally prone when they see persons under sentence of death. The desire of appearing brave and making the figure of a hero in low life was in all probability the occasion of his acting so odd a part, and as he was generally looked upon as their chief by those unfortunate creatures who were of his gang, possibly he put on this ferocity in his manner in order to support his authority, and preserve that respect and superiority of which these wretches are observed to be inexpressibly fond.
Stephen Burnet, alias Barnet, alias Barnham, which was his true name, was a child when he died, and a thief almost from his cradle. His parents, who were people of worth, sent him to school with a design, doubtless, that he should have acquired some good there; but Stephen made use of that time to visit a master of his own choosing, the celebrated Mr. Jonathan Wild, at whose levy he was a pretty constant attendant and while an infant he was a most assiduous companion and assistant to the famous Blueskin.
My readers may be perhaps inquisitive how an infant of eight years old could in any way assist a person of Blueskin's profession. For their information, then, perhaps for their security, I must inform them that while Blueskin and one of his companions bought a pair of stockings, or two or three pairs of gloves in a large Shop, Stephen used to creep on all fours under the counter, and march off with goods perhaps to the value of ten, twelve, or twenty pounds. But, alas, he was not the youngest of Mr. Wild's scholars. I myself have seen a boy of six years old tried at the Old Bailey for stealing the rings of an oyster women's fingers as she sat asleep by her tub, and after his being acquitted by the compassion of the jury, Jonathan took him from the bar, and carrying him back upon the leads, lifted him up in his arms, and turning to the spectators, said, "Here's a cock of the game for you, of my own breeding up."
But to return to Barnham. His friends no sooner found out the villainy of his inclinations, but they took all methods imaginable to wean him from his vices. They corrected him severely; they offered him any encouragements on his showing the least visible sign of amendment, they put him to seven several trades upon liking. But all this was to no purpose, nothing could persuade him to forsake his old trade, which following with indefatigable industry, he made a shift to reach the gallows of an old offender, at almost nineteen years of age.
After he, Featherby, Vaux and Levee became acquainted, they suffered no time to be lost in perpetrating such facts as were most likely to supply them with money, roving abroad almost every night, in quest of adventures and returning very seldom without some considerable prey. Perhaps my readers may be inquisitive as to what became of all this money. Why, really, it was spent in drink, gaming and in whores, three articles which ran so high amongst these knight-errants in low life that Barnham and two more found a way to lavish an hundred and twenty pounds on them in three weeks.
On one of his nocturnal expeditions, in company with Levee and Featherby, they robbed one Mr. Brown, in Dean's Court by St. Paul's Churchyard, of a gold watch and thirteen guineas; upon which the gentleman thought fit, it seems, to offer in the newspapers a reward of five guineas for restoring the watch. Not many days after, he received a penny-post epistle from Mr. Barnham, in which he was told that if he came to a field near Sadler's Wells, and brought the promised reward of five guineas along with him, he should there meet a single person at half an hour after six precisely, who would restore him his watch without doing him any injury whatsoever. At the time appointed the gentleman went thither, found Barnham walking alone, well dressed with a laced hat on, who immediately came up to him, and receiving the five guineas presented him with his watch.
Mr. Brown having no more to do with him, immediately turned round about to go back, upon which Barnham produced a pistol ready cocked from under his coat. "You see", says he, "it is in my power to rob you again; but I scorn to break my word of honour." Levee and Featherby, it seems, were posted pretty near and, as they all declared, intended to have shot the gentleman if he had brought anybody with him, or had made the least opposition or noise.
At Kingston assizes he was tried for a robbery committed in Surrey, but for want of sufficient evidence was acquitted, upon which he returned immediately to his old trade. About three months before he was apprehended for the last time, he came into Little Britain (the place where he was born), produced a silver spoon and fifteen shillings in money, declared it to be the effects of that day's exploits, and then climbing up a lamp-post, thrust his head through the iron circle in which in winter time the lamp is placed, declaring to the neighbours who called him and advised him to reform, that within three months he would do something that should bring him to be hanged in the same place. As to the time he was not mistaken, though he was a little out as to the manner and place of his execution, and we mention this fact only to show the amazing wickedness of so young a man, of which we shall hereafter have occasion to say a great deal more.
Thomas Vaux was a fellow of no education at all. Whether he had been bred to any employment or not I am not able to say, but that which he followed was sweeping of chimneys, the profits of which he eked out with thefts, in which he continued undiscovered for a long space of time. In himself he was a fellow void of almost every good quality, disliked even by his own companions for his brutal behaviour which he still kept up even under his misfortunes, and ceased not to behave with an obstinate perverseness even to the last moment of his life.
The fact for which all this gang suffered was for robbing one Mr. Clark, at the corner of Water Lane, in Fleet Street, which at their trial, was proved upon them by witnesses in the following manner:
Mr. Clark, the prosecutor, deposed that going in a coach from St. Paul's to the Inner Temple, he saw three or four persons dogging it from a toy-shop at the corner of St. Paul's Churchyard; that he scarce lost sight of them until he came to the end of Water Lane, where Barnham and Vaux stopped the coach; he then looked out and saw them very plainly. Levee stepped into the coach, put his hand into his pocket, and tore his breeches down in taking out the things; Featherby all the while holding a pistol to his breast The things they took from him were a silver watch, value four pounds, a diamond ring, three pounds eleven shillings in silver and fourteen guineas.
Then the confessions of Levee and Barnham before Sir William Billers, Knight and Alderman, were read, in which they owned that they committed the robbery on Mr. Clark, and that Featherby and Vaux assisted therein. Sir William also attested that they made the said confession freely and without any promises made, or being threatened in case of refusal. Thomas Wood swore that going to apprehend Featherby and one Cable, in a house in Blue Boar's Head Alley, in Barbican, they both snapped their pistols at him, but that neither of them went off.
Mary Vaux, wife of the prisoner Thomas Vaux, having first excused herself from giving any testimony against her husband, deposed that she saw the rest of the prisoners commit the robbery at the end of Water Lane, and that Levee got into the coach. Upon which evidence taken altogether the jury found them guilty without going out of the Court.
When they received sentence of death, they all behaved themselves very audaciously, except Levee who appeared penitent, and excused himself of the misbehaviour he had been guilty of at his trial. During the time they remained under sentence of death in Newgate, this last mentioned criminal, Levee, appeared truly sensible of that miserable state in which he was. He attended the public devotion at Chapel with great seriousness, except when his audacious companions pulled him and disturbed him, when he would sometimes smile. As he had passed through the former part of his life without thought or reflection, so he seemed now awakened all at once to a just sense of his sins. In a word, he did every thing which so short a space could admit of, to convince those who saw him that he minded only the great business he had to do, viz., the making of his peace with that God who he had so much offended.
Featherby, as has been said, persisted in that brutal behaviour for which he had been remarkable amongst his gang. At chapel he disturbed the congregation by throwing sticks at a gentleman, laughing and talking to his companions, sometimes insulting and beating those who were near him, and in fine encouraged the rest of his companions to behave in such a manner that the keepers were reduced to the necessity of causing them all four to be chained and nailed down in the old condemned hold, for fear of their committing some murder or other before they died, which they often threatened they would do. There they continued for three or four days, until upon the promise of amendment and behaving better for the future, they were released, brought back again to their respective cells, and at times of public devotion up to chapel.
When the death warrant came down, Featherby pretended to be much more moved than could be expected, seemed in dreadful agonies at the remembrance of his former wicked and impudent behaviour, prayed with great fervency, and said he hoped that God would yet have mercy on him. Barnham continued unmoved to the last. He did, indeed, abstain from ill-language and disturbing people at chapel, but employed his time in his cell, in composing a song to celebrate the glorious actions of himself and his companions. This was work he very much valued himself upon, and sending for the person who usually prints the dying speeches, he desired it might be inserted, but it containing incitements to their companions to go on in the same trade, in the strongest terms he was capable of framing them in, his design was frustrated, and they were not published.
Vaux behaved a little more civilly after their being stapled down in the condemned hold, but throughout the time of his confinement appeared to be a very obstinate and incorrigible fellow. Levee was twenty-four years old; Featherby about the same age; Barnham near nineteen; and Vaux twenty-three, at the time they suffered, being on the 11th of November, 1728, in company with nine other malefactors.
A Paper written by Featherby's own hand, which he delivered to the Ordinary of Newgate in the Chapel immediately before they went to be executed.
As it is my sad misfortune to come to this untimely end, I think it my duty to acknowledge the justice of Almighty God, and that of my country, and I humbly implore pardon of the Divine Goodness, and forgiveness of all that I have injured, or any ways offended. It is a sad reflection upon my spirit that I have had the blessing and advantage of honest and pious parents, whose tender care provided for my education, so that I might have lived to God's glory, their comfort and my own lasting felicity. But I take shame to myself, and humbly acknowledge that by the evil ways I of late followed I neglected my duty to my great Creator, and brought grief to my dear and tender mother. And having thus far, and much more, effended against God and man, I hope and earnestly desire, that no prudent nor charitable person will reflect upon my good mother, or any other friend or relation for my shameful end.
 Now called Whitefriars Street.
Source: Hayward, Lives of the Most Remarkable Criminals