Elizabeth Fricker.

 

Once again it is a story of a servant who stole from her employer with the help of others although on this occasion one of them was to hang with her.

Elizabeth Fricker was a thirty year old widow who worked as a maid servant in the household of Mrs. Ann Ashworth who lived in Berner Street in the Marylebone area of London.  As in the case of Amelia Roberts, she let her accomplices into the house and between them they stole a considerable amount of silver plate.  In the early nineteenth century, before the advent of expensive electronic consumer goods, the better off had servants and seemed to spend a lot of money and silver tableware which was no doubt attractive to thieves because of its high value and the good demand for it.

 

The crime took place on the night of Sunday the 28th of July 1816, which was Elizabeth’s day off.  She wasn’t in the house much that day but came back in the evening.  Elizabeth’s behaviour seemed rather strange to Mrs. Ashworth and also to her fellow servant, Hannah Holloway, who was the household’s cook.  Mrs. Ashworth retired to her bedroom at about eleven o’clock and Elizabeth came in and tried to take the candle from the bedroom.  Mrs. Ashworth asked her why she was taking it and so she put it down and left it.  A few minutes later she brought in a letter and told her mistress that she had to go out. She was told that she couldn’t but persisted in her demand, as it she said it was important.  She left the bedroom and went out briefly, returning about ten o’clock and joining Hannah downstairs. Their work being finished for the day and having locked up the house, Hannah suggested that they go to bed but Elizabeth did not want to and seemed ill at ease. The two women went up to their shared bedroom with Elizabeth suddenly remembering that she had left her book downstairs and going back down to fetch it.  She then read for a bit before Hannah went to sleep.  Hannah later testified that she had never seen her read a book before.  The next morning Elizabeth got up first and woke Hannah at about six o’clock, again this was unusual as normally Hannah had to wake Elizabeth.  On going downstairs, Hannah discovered the break in - the kitchen door was propped open with a wine bottle containing a candle and Mrs. Ashworth’s writing desk was on its side in the kitchen with some of its contents strewn around the floor.  Hannah went upstairs and told her mistress what she had found.  Mrs. Ashworth came down and began checking round the property. She noticed that the sideboard door had been forced open, it was always kept locked at night, and that all of her silver plate was missing.  She estimated the value of this to be over £400 - a considerable sum.  It transpired later, at the trial, that on the Saturday prior to the robbery Elizabeth had asked to clean the silver which Mrs. Ashworth thought was unusual.  The robbery was reported to the constable, Samuel Plank, who made a thorough examination of the house.  He noted that there was no damage outside the property and that as there was no key hole on the outside of the door, the lock could not have been picked, it could only have been opened from inside.  Elizabeth drew his attention to one of the window shutters which was slightly ajar.  Plank examined this, noting that there was a row of potted plants on the sill outside.  There had been rain a few days earlier and the excess rain water had run down the outside of the pots and dried to a crust around the base of each one.  When he looked carefully, he could see that the pots had not been disturbed, and if someone had removed them to gain access, they must have been inordinately careful in replacing them in their exact positions.  He demonstrated this fact to Elizabeth, but she continued to assert that the burglars had come in through this window and not by any other route. 

On the Monday afternoon Hannah made a trip to the butchers and returning to the house found Elizabeth in conversation with a tall man at the kitchen door.  She was later to identify this man in court as William Kelly.  Seeing Hannah, Elizabeth and William left the house, Elizabeth returning an hour or so later. Hannah asked her where she had been and Elizabeth told her that she told her that she had wished to “vent her mind” on the man.  She did not explain what she meant by this.

 

Plank was not satisfied with Elizabeth’s story and arrested her on the Tuesday afternoon.  Having taken her into custody he asked Elizabeth to let him see the contents of her box. (Servants typically owned a trunk in which they kept their belongings and which was convenient to move when they changed jobs.)  She let him see it and the only thing he found was a piece of flannel cloth, certainly no silver.  He also questioned her about a man he had seen her talking to in the street.  At first she was reluctant to tell him who the man was, but on being pressed by Mr. Plant claimed he was a tally man, named Finch, who sold items of drapery to people on tick, collecting the money instalments. Elizabeth told the constable that she had owed Finch eight shillings for best part of a year.   During this interview the name of Kelly was not mentioned by either Elizabeth or the constable.

 

Elizabeth had been observed talking to her boyfriend William Kelly by John King who lived opposite Mrs. Ashworth.  He saw a tall man in Berner Street looking up at Mrs. Ashworth’s house and a few moments later Elizabeth emerged and got into conversation with this man. Mr. King saw the man give her something although he was not able to see what it was.  Knowing about the burglary he told his son to watch them and was able to attract Mrs. Ashworth’s attention and point the incident out to her.  Mr. King was able to get a good description of the man which he later gave as evidence in court and which seemed to fit William Kelly closely.  He also thought he had seen him outside the house before, and Mr. King’s son Alfred was able to testify that he too had seen this man at least twice previously on the Tuesday.

 

On the 29th of August Peter Kelley, William’s father, went to the house of Hannah Compton and asked her if he could store a trunk there, telling her that it belonged to a friend of his, who was looking for a new job.  The trunk remained with Mrs. Compton for nine days before an unidentified woman came and asked for it.  Mrs. Compton was not comfortable with this and went to Marlborough Street police station and got constable William Craig to come and collect the trunk.  The police broke it open in their office and found it contained a quantity of silver plate and various other items.  This find led to the arrest of William Kelly and also his father.  Elizabeth and William were charged with the burglary and Peter with receiving stolen goods. 

The trial opened on Wednesday the 30th of October, 1816 at the Old Bailey before the Common Sergeant.  Various witnesses were called to identify the accused and to give evidence of the crime and the relationship between Elizabeth and William.  There was also evidence regarding the stolen goods which had initially been wrapped in some green baize and a tablecloth with a yellow border both of which were later discovered in the trunk left by William. The prosecution had been able to build a strong case against the defendants who were now given the chance to speak in their defence.

 

Elizabeth made a straightforward denial of the charges against but had no actual defence.

William offered a full confession, telling the court that he and he alone was responsible for the robbery and that the three other prisoners at the bar were entirely innocent.  (A Mr. Hitchen who had also been charged with receiving was acquitted). William’s father Peter simply told the court that he had no knowledge of what was in the trunk.  The jury were less than impressed with these defences and all three were found guilty. 

At the end of the Sessions Elizabeth and William were sentenced to death and Peter to transportation for fourteen years. All were returned to Newgate to await the execution of their sentences.  Peter would have been transferred to a ship bound for Australia. 

 

Whilst awaiting her execution Elizabeth was visited by the great prison reformer Elizabeth Fry who endeavoured to offer her some comfort.  She recorded the meeting in her diary and noted that she also saw six men waiting to be hanged and seven young children. One of the men had also been sentenced for burglary, two for robbery and three for forgery.  

Elizabeth Fry was a Quaker who had been born in 1780.  She worked tirelessly for prison reform, helping to found The Association for the Improvement of the Female Prisoners in Newgate. This group campainged for better conditions for the female prsioners, a school for their children and a woman matron to look after them.  Their activities spread to other towns and represented the first real attempt to treat criminals as human beings rather than than vermin to be eradicated.

The Quakers generally, also campaigned against public executions.  They did not approve of the pleasure that the ordinary public derived from watching them and of the rowdy and unsympathetic behaviour that public hangings engenderd.

 

It seems that Mrs. Fry raised Elizabeth’s case in the press and was very vigorously attacked for being a sentimentalist by the then Lord Chancellor, Lord Eldon, who said that if hanging was abolished for theft, the property of Englishmen would be left wholly without protection.
Lord Eldon was noted for his rigid application of the law and his unwillingness to see it reformed.

Elizabeth was duly hanged outside Newgate on Wednesday the 5th of March 1817, together with William and five other men.  With them on the gallows were Andrew and Benjamin Savage who had both been convicted of forgery & uttering, Thomas Cann also convicted of forgery and James Gates and James Baker who had been sentenced to hang for robbery. The children whom Mrs. Fry had met were not executed and were presumably transported.

 

Just after 8 o’clock the usual procession emerged from the Debtor’s Door led by the Marshall carrying the black wand and the various officials.  The seven prisoners were led up and prayed with the Ordinary while John Langley, the hangman, prepared them in turn.  Sometime around 8.15 the signal was given and the drop fell.  There is no particular record of their deaths so it can be presumed that nothing untoward happened. All were left on the rope for the customary hour before being taken down.  The bodies were made available to relatives and friends for burial later in the day.

 

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