A Slippery Set of Stories, 1714-1715

In early April, “a little Boy” was brought before the Old Bailey. He was prosecuted by one who he might have looked upon as a friend and benefactor: John Saucer, his next-door neighbour. Saucer had an indictment against young James Blundel, claiming the youth had stolen eight yards of lustring, a shiny, fine and glossy weave of silk, as well as a silk hood, all from his house.

Blundel’s trial sparks interest on several grounds, despite the brevity of the account. First is the young boy’s circumstance: he is a parish child – an orphan, perhaps abandoned at birth or through the death of his parents left to rely upon the charity of the parish. This case occurring decades before the foundation of London’s Foundling Hospital, his care was very local. His parish, Harrow on the Hill, in London’s northwest, well outside the old city walls, secured the services of a nurse to care for young James. This was common practice, more than one in ten London women worked as nurses, caring for the sick, the poor, the young and the elderly. James Blundel’s unnamed nurse lived next door to John Saucer and his family, who thus came to know the young boy.

John Saucer, by the Proceedings‘ account, took a fancy to youthful James, apparently seeing him as a prospective servant. When the Saucers went away from home in February, 1714, the little boy was left in charge of their house. Saucer returned to discover the materials missing and accused his one-time favourite. The report asserts that the Saucers threatened to take the boy into London, to a Cunning Man. A lawyer perhaps? Or someone more terrifying? The record is sadly opaque.

What we do know is that the threat prompted young James to bolt. He ran away to his nurse and she apparently sheltered him against the Saucer’s wrath. How much protection could she offer, though? For all the month of March, from the time of the theft to the trial itself, did the child stay safe in her care or did he languish in Newgate? We do not know how he spent those long weeks.

However, when the accused eventually spoke in the court, he told a very different story that brings us to our second point of intrigue in the case. Young Blundel claimed that he was innocent, an unsurprising assertion. But the details of who he accused and how are unexpected. He said that it was not he but his nurse’s grandson, one James Cock, who only stole the Saucer’s silk. Furthermore, Cock didn’t act alone. No, he gave the stolen silk to his grandmother, Blundel’s nurse. She apparently received “whatever they stole”. In this version of the theft, James Blundel was nothing more than a convenient scapegoat for a practised set of thieves right there on Saucer’s door. Parish nurses didn’t enjoy a good reputation in early eighteenth century London. Popular belief suspected many of starving or mistreating their charges. To hear that one had a family given to thieving and that she had further acted to receive stolen goods might not have been a surprising claim for the court to hear.

James Blundel was acquited. The judge advised John Saucer to press his case against James Cock – there is no mention of the grandmother’s role so possibly her part seemed less substantiated. Saucer did just as the court advised in October of the next year, suggesting that Cock must have been an elusive soul to evade prosecution for so long. Despite Blundel’s earlier testimony, this wasn’t an easy victory for Saucer. As the Proceedings explains, with no evidence brought against Cock, he was acquitted. Was Blundel no longer in the neighbour’s custody to be able to speak on Saucer’s behalf?

The Saucers certainly got no satisfaction for their stolen silk. That said, we don’t know what happened to James Blundel. Did he stay with the nurse he’d accused of receiving stolen goods – that seems unlikely as he didn’t testify against Cock? Did the Saucers regret their prosecution and restore him to their household? Blundel’s absence from the second trial argues against this. Perhaps the first trial was simply an elaborate scam by Blundel, Cock, and the nameless parish nurse to evade justice in an early eighteenth-century precursor to Oliver Twist? It would be wonderful to find out more about their lives and how life carried on in this corner of Harrow after the prosecutions and acquittals!

Sources:

Old Bailey Proceedings Online (www.oldbaileyonline.org, version 7.2, 16 January 2018), April 1714, trial of James Blundel (t17140407-39).

Old Bailey Proceedings Online (www.oldbaileyonline.org, version 7.2, 16 January 2018), October 1715, trial of James Cock (t17151012-46).

Tim Hitchcock, Sharon Howard and Robert Shoemaker, “Parish Nurses”, London Lives, 1690-1800 (www.londonlives.org, version, 1.1 17 June 2012). https://www.londonlives.org/static/ParishNurses.jsp

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