A plausible Rascal, who was executed at Bristol, 15th of May, 1772, for Forgery
JONATHAN BRITAIN was born near Thirsk, in the county of York. His parents were poor people, and not able to give him a liberal education. They sent him to York to an attorney, whom he was to serve as an errand-boy; but he had not been long in this station before his master discovered such uncommon marks of genius and ability in him that he articled him as a clerk, and took him into his office. But an impatience of restraint induced him to leave a master who had behaved to him with so much civility. He had not, however, been long out of a place when the master of a public academy employed him as a teacher of mathe- matics, for which his own studies had qualified him; and he was promoted to be principal usher in the school. In this situation he was as restless as in the former, and therefore quitted it, and entered as a soldier in the regiment of the 10th Dragoons.
As he was a man of remarkably fine appearance he was taken great notice of by his officers, who paid such attention to him that it very much flattered his vanity; and, inducing him to rival his superiors in point of expense, his circumstances were soon greatly reduced, and he had recourse to the art of chicane and knavery to support his extravagance. In these reduced circumstances he committed a variety of frauds, most of them of such artful contrivance as to elude all possibility of detection.
He had a custom of introducing himself into the company of persons who had no suspicion of deceit, and then he would so far insinuate himself into their good opinion as to take undue advantage of their unsuspecting honesty.
Reduced to circumstances of great distress, he was tempted to the commission of forgery. Having forged several drafts, he passed them at Bristol, and then repaired to London, in fear of detection. On his arrival in the metropolis he wrote several letters to the King, intimating that he had been concerned in setting fire to the dockyard at Portsmouth. No regard being paid to these letters to his Majesty, he wrote to the Lord Mayor, declaring that he was ready to surrender himself, and make a discovery of his accomplices, on condition that his pardon should be promised in an advertisement in The London Gazette.
At length a pardon to any accomplice was advertised in the Gazette; on which Britain went to Reading to meet his wife. But on the very evening of his arrival in that town he offered some forged drafts in payment; the consequence of which was that he was apprehended, and lodged in jail. Britain then wrote letters, which he caused to be inserted in some of the newspapers, in which he charged Lord Mansfield and the Earls of Halifax and Faulconbridge, together with other persons of rank, with having been bribed by the Court of France to "encourage the setting fire to the dockyard at Portsmouth."
Improbable as this story was, many people gave a temporary attention to it, and some even affected to believe it; but it was too absurd to obtain credit for any considerable time. At the next assizes for the county of Berks a bill of indictment for forgery was preferred against Britain, but thrown out by the grand jury, on what they considered as defective evidence; and his discharge would have ensued, of course, but that three detainers were lodged against him, which kept him in prison at Reading till he was removed to Bristol by a writ of habeas corpus.
Britain was now visited by numbers of people, who, from motives of curiosity, wished to inquire into the validity of the tale he had invented respecting the fire; but they could make no satisfactory discoveries. They saw that the whole tale was a lie, yet they contributed to his immediate support in a manner so liberal as to do honour to their humanity.
On the commencement of the sessions he was arraigned on several indictments for forgery; but being put to the bar, he refused to plead, and held in his hand the Gazette which contained the offer of pardon, insisting that he had given information against his accomplices who had set fire to the dockyard at Portsmouth.
On this he was informed by the recorder that he could take no notice of the proclamation inserted in the Gazette. But Britain, instead of paying attention to this declaration, threw the Gazette upon the table where the clerk sat, and declared that a scheme was formed to deprive him of life, contrary to the due course of law.
Thereupon the recorder mentioned a late Act of Parliament by which he would be deemed guilty if he refused to plead to the indictment; but the magistrate did not choose to proceed on the trial without being in possession of the Act in question; on which a special messenger was sent to London to procure the Act, if it could be had in print, or otherwise to bring an attested copy of it from the Record Office.
The messenger returned with the Act of Parliament in print at the end of two days, and Britain was again brought to his trial, when he pleaded not guilty to the indictment. The recorder would have allowed him counsel, but he refused all such kind of assistance, and was determined to plead for himself. He cross-examined the witnesses in a manner that gave sufficient testimony of his abilities; but the evidence against him was such as not to admit of a doubt of his guilt, and in consequence he was capitally convicted, and sentenced to die. He was executed on the 15th of May, 1772.