Ex-Classics Home Page



Convicted in the Court of King's Bench, of a conspiracy, and the two first imprisoned and pilloried

   SWINDLING has lately made more rapid advances than any other mode of plunder. The gang to which these people belonged, were particularly dangerous to tradesmen, from the extraordinary abilities displayed by the individuals of which it was composed.

   Edward William Roberts was regularly bred to the law, and about ten years ago was called to the bar, where his abilities promised him success in that learned and arduous profession. He occupied a genteel house in the neighbourhood of Lincoln's Inn, the furniture of which together with a library, was presented him by his intimate friend Major Davison. Here we find Miss Dorothy Cole, the daughter of the kind landlady of the Magpie on Hounslow-heath, whose smiles and good cheer will be long remembered by many a traveller, passing as his wife, and attended by her footman, though he was married, and the father of several children.

   The first dishonourable act which we find committed by Roberts, was that of secretly selling the bounty of his friend, and clandestinely leaving his chambers, with a number of debts unpaid.

   In a very short time, however, we find this loving couple much more elegantly situated and attended, in Dover-street, Piccadilly; where Roberts hired a furnished house at five guineas per week, and a chariot for Miss, while one of her brothers acted the part of a footman in a rich livery. Their success here was at first great, and a tradesman was duped out of muslin to the amount of 250L.

   It is a true saying that repetition of stolen joys renders us heedless of the consequences of detection. That it was so with Roberts and his mistress will be fully shewn in the sequel of the present very curious case. From Dover-street, it appeared they were perforce removed to the King's Bench. In prison, the fascinating wiles of Miss stole upon the peace and purse of an old sensualist (and many such characters frequent such a prison) who went by the appellation of captain Fisher, who soon took her from durance vile and snugly lodged her in Dyer's-buildings, Holborn; but Roberts was left alone, to lament his fate. The vicinity of St. George's-fields being ill-suited to the action of such a mind as our barrister's, he procured a writ of habeas corpus, for his removal to the Fleet prison, situated in the heart of the city of London. In the Fleet, he made an acquaintance with Brown, who will soon be found a conspicuous figure in the nefarious scenes which we have to display. Brown reported himself to have been an eminent brandy-merchant, and to be possessed of the title to lands in the United States of America, which, if we may credit Mr Imber, the auctioneer, in Hatton-garden, was of some small value. At any rate upon some sort of paper negotiation, he procured his liberty, leaving Roberts still a prisoner, but not without first entering into a league with him for future operations.

   Brown immediately repaired to Dyer's-buildings, took Miss from the protection of the old captain, hired a handsome house in Coram-street, Brunswick-square, wherein she entered as Mrs Brown, in mourning for the death of his supposed father. A job carriage was procured, with a regular suite of servants, in which they went as man and wife to different tradesmen, who eagerly furnished their new house with every kind of elegant furniture. It was some time before Roberts could get outside the walls of his prison, and not until the tradesmen had become importunate for the payment of their bills; one of whom had issued a writ, and lodged Brown with Wither's, the sheriff's officer. Roberts at this critical time made his appearance in Coram-street, claimed the goods, servants, horses, and all as his property; and Miss for his wife, which she readily confirmed, for of all her admirers, he certainly was the favourite. The remainder of the impatient tradesmen now became alarmed, and mistrust ran through all who had contributed to the establishment in Coram-street, and all now became clamorous upon Roberts. A lawyer, next to the female decoy, is the most useful member of a gang of swindlers, because he knows how far to go, and when to stop; or in other words he knows how to keep their necks out of the halter, though all his ingenuity is seldom proof against the pillory. Our counsellor, therefore, in order to extricate the whole, by a coup-de-main, drew a warrant of attorney, the ultimatum of law proceedings, in which Brown confessed judgment recovered by him for a large pretended debt, and thereupon issued execution on the devoted goods, pretending, however, that it was at the suit of his brother.

   Mr Rackstraw, the upholsterer, in Tottenham-court-road, and a Mr Hancock, an ironmonger, in the same neighbourhood, were the principal victims of this deep-laid scheme of villainy.

   The latter, from its consequences, added to other similar losses, in a short time became bankrupt. To these men, how ever, are the public indebted for bringing the swindlers to justice. They went to Coram-street, insisted on seeing the writ under which their property had been seized, and finding the pretended plaintiff to be the identical Edward William Roberts, saw the very extent of their danger. They posted off to the public-office, in Marlborough-street, and upon their disclosing the scene of iniquity, obtained warrants against Roberts and his lady, and lodged a caveat against the removal of the goods; but when the officers of justice arrived, the party complained of had fled. It soon appeared that in their depredations, they had descended to the meanest tricks -- the petty chandler, the little huckster, the washer and mangling women, grocers, butchers, bakers, and wherever they could procure credit for the most trifling score, surrounded their house. Their servants found themselves unpaid, left to shift for themselves; and the unhappy coachman, anxious to serve an old fellow-servant who had commenced coal-merchant, had become responsible for his master's cellar of coals, and was saddled with the payment.

   Meantime the defeated lawyer with his fair one had secretly fled to private furnished lodgings, at the house of Mr Thomas Prior, coal-merchant, No. 24, Salisbury-street, Strand, where she was brought to bed of a daughter, his acknowledged child, but according to the report of the nurse, 'the very spit of the old captain.' Nor were the runners after them idle. They, from whom no villain on whom a good price is set, can long be hid, soon found their way to Salisbury-street; and on their approach, Roberts ran to the top of the house, but, alas! too late to find his safety in flight. Having seized him, they entered the chamber of accouchement; but, as 'tis said on one sad occasion, 'even butchers wept'; they too, though also, 'unused to the melting mood', retired under the influence of modesty and pity, and left the new-made parent awhile to her sorrows.

   At Marlborough-street, appeared as counsel for Roberts, Mr Marriot, an advocate worthy of a better cause. The prisoner, also a pleader, spoke long and with ingenuity in his defence, while his brother counsellor also in vain exerted his eloquence. The hateful mittimus was signed, and Roberts safely lodged in Clerkenwell prison.

   It will be here but justice to observe, that Miss Cole, for she certainly never legally put aside her maiden name, was a woman of considerable acquired accomplishments. She had already published a novel, by subscription; but its nervous language plainly shewed it to have been the production of Roberts; and it was, in fact, a well written rhapsody. In search of subscribers, her manners, and affected artless tale, imposed upon the benevolent hearts of lady Haggerstone and lady Louisa Manners. With such patronage, no wonder the book was prefaced with a long list of fashionable contributors. The former of these noble ladies particularly interested herself in the welfare of Miss; called upon her in her own coach, accompanied by Mrs Siddons, (not the actress), called in Salisbury-street during the accouchement, left her purse, and promised to exert herself in procuring some employ for her husband, believing her to be the wife of Roberts. This generous act took place only a few days previous to his apprehension.

   The supposed Mrs Roberts was now perfectly recovered -- the month was elapsed, and no enquiries had been made after her from Marlborough-street. Before this time, however, Prior the landlord, had certainly cause sufficient for alarm, touching his rent, and on this he spoke. The luxurious old captain, who had never neglected his occasional visits, with ample remuneration for each, on this occasion not only came forward and paid up all arrears, but sent money to the prisoner in Clerkenwell.

   Notwithstanding the fate of Roberts, and the very precarious situation in which this infatuated woman stood, still she remained in fancied security, upon the bounty of the old dotard. Not so with those who still held a warrant against her, for so keen were they to their trust, that they had sifted the nurse out on the day of the birth of the child, nor did they suffer another day of the next month to close without another visit to Salisbury-street, when, without any difficulty, they made their caption, and carried the mother, accompanied by the nurse and babe, to that tribunal from whence Roberts had been already committed. Her crime having already been investigated, little could be adduced in her defence, and she was sent to her pretended husband. In prison, however, she did not remain longer than a week, as this kind captain procured her bail, and money to hire more comfortable lodgings, which she found, in Amphitheatre-row, Surrey side of Westminster bridge, where she remained secluded five weeks: a life ill suited to her active mind. We next find her in a more central situation, but yet in humble apartments, a furnished second floor in Theobald's-row, Bedford-row; and there, strange to tell, Roberts once more joined her, having at length been liberated upon bail. In Theobald's-road, they got a prospectus printed of another novel, to be called, 'The Mysterious Mother,' and with this, neatly enveloped in gilt paper, and sealed with a seal bearing the initial R. she long employed her time, on foot now, in going from one noble mansion to the other, soliciting subscriptions.

   So little do the major part of the great fatigue themselves in reading the detail of criminal enquiries, at public offices, that few had read the many long accounts of her commitment, and in order to rid themselves of her perpetual importunities, subscribed to 'The Mysterious Mother'; upon which Roberts and herself subsisted until they were brought to trial. The third unlucky conspirator, Brown, was again caged in the Fleet prison.

   The trial of this gang stood upon the docket at Hicks' Hall, but as the fish out of the frying pan jumped into the fire, they removed their case into the court of king's bench, a far more dread tribunal, but doubtless with the desperate hope that Rackstraw and Hancock would not be at the great expense of following them. Here they were again disappointed, for the injured tradesmen followed them up, and the attorney-general led the prosecution against them; Mr Marriot did all that man could do in a bad cause, but they were all found guilty, and sentence postponed until the next term, as usual in such cases. Though convicted, they were, until sentence was pronounced, still upon bail. In the meantime it was reported that death had put an end to the career of Miss Dorothy Cole; and whether true or otherwise, she certainly has not since appeared upon the grand theatre of wealth and villainy, London.

   Roberts and Brown, however, still lived the dread of honest tradesmen; but as in the capital they were now too well known, they shifted their operations to its environs. The public papers soon announced them to be at Cheshunt, a few miles distant. There they played off their old game of hiring a house, and getting it handsomely furnished. We are not in possession of the particulars of the Cheshunt swindling; but we know that there they were again detected, prosecuted, tried at the assizes for Hertfordshire, and again sentenced to imprisonment and the pillory.

   The first convictions, however, must be first satisfied; and for this purpose they were brought into Westminster Hall, and sentenced to a years imprisonment and pillory. The latter was put in force at Charing-cross, in July, 1810, when the enraged populace severely pelted them with rotten eggs, and all manner of filth, which could be suddenly collected, until they bore little resemblance of human beings; and were taken out half suffocated.

Previous Next

Back to Introduction