Tuesday, 14 September 2010

14 September 1749 - The Unfortunate Bosavern Penlez

‘Thursday 14th September 1749 ... John Wilson and Bosovern Penlez were indicted, for that they, together with divers other Persons, to the Number of 40 and upwards, being feloniously and riotously assembled, to the Disturbance of the public Peace, did begin to demolish the dwelling House of Peter Wood’
John Taylor, The Ordinary of Newgate’s Account of the Behaviour, Confession & Dying Words of the Fifteen Malefactors Who Were Executed At Tyburn, Old Bailey Online (18 Oct 1749)

On Thursday, 14th September 1749 Bosavern Penlez was sentenced to death. The sentence was considered extremely severe and over 800 people had petitioned for his pardon, numerous pamphlets and prints were published to the same effect. Nevertheless, Penlez was hanged on 28 October 1749 at Tyburn for being part of a riot which destroyed a pimp’s property. The mob action in which Penlez partook was a classic example of ‘the moral economy of the English crowd’.

On July 1st 1749 a sailor had visited a brothel in the Strand and had had his possessions stolen by a prostitute. After a brawl with the ‘cock-bawd’ (the pimp) the sailor ‘denounc’d Vengeance to his House’ and returned later that night with over 40 armed sailors who proceeded to ransack the ‘house of ill repute’.

BM3036 - C Mosley, The Tar's Triumph, or Bawdy-House Battery. (1 July 1749)

All of the windows were smashed, naked prostitutes were pushed into the street, mattresses torn, tables, chairs and all of the contents of the house were thrown out of windows to the street below. Here they were either smashed to pieces or burnt in the bonfire which the sailors had lit. It is important to note that theft was prohibited by the crowd – one small boy was seen carrying away a cage and was told to return it to the fire. As it would be difficult for the sailor to take the case to the law – he should not have been in the brothel to start with – justice had to be taken into his own hands. If he had stolen from the brothel then his crime would have been equal to which the mob was formed in the first place.

Far from being frowned upon, most reports show that the surrounding inhabitants were pleased to see action being taken against the houses of ill repute in their neighbourhood, if a little concerned about the size of the fire that was forming in the street. Mrs L---- a cheesemonger ‘happen’d to clap Her Hands, and express Her Joy vociferously’. The print below sees a woman cry “a Joyfull Riddance” out of her window, while a prostitute, a quack doctor, a diseased man, a brothel keeper and a drunk bemoan their fate at the hands of the mob. Guards were called but when they arrived to see that it was a brothel being torn apart by sailors (sailors were renowned as ‘Liberty’s defenders’) their confusion as to what was right resulted largely in inaction – with most of them huddling around the fire unsure of what to do, before reluctantly breaking up the mob.

BM3035 - P Boitard, The Sailor's Revenge, or the Strand in an Uproar. (1 July 1749)
The following night, July 2nd, the sailors decided to continue their ‘expedition against bawdy-houses’ which ‘had to them the merit of holy War’. ‘Numbers of thoughtless giddy People, young and old, with more Mirth in their Heads than Malice at their Heart’ had began following the mob. Of these, on July 3rd, a drunken Bosavern Penlez was one. He had entered the house of Peter Wood and was caught by a justice of the peace with a bundle of linen and sent to Newgate prison while the sailors continued on their quest to ransack brothels.
Three people were put on trial for the riot, one died in prison (a common fate), another was pardoned the night before the execution (a friend in a high place ) leaving Penlez to suffer death for a crime which he did not instigate or even take a major part in. This naturally outraged many of the public. Common arguments were that ‘many of greater Age, Consequence, and Knowledge of Things’ took part than ‘this unthinking lad’, so he should not bear sole responsibility. Others contended that nobody should be on trial as the mob was acting in the best interests of the neighbourhood. There was high suspicion that Penlez’s death was a warning against mob actions, rather than a just punishment. For these, mob action was ‘notice of such an Instance of the Old British Spirit’ which is being threatened by ‘a general Conspiracy to its Extinction’. Henry Fielding, defending the death sentence clearly believed that it was not the mob’s prerogative to take matters in their own hands and Penlez’s death was justified. However, he did concede that ‘such a riot called for some Example, and that the Man who was made that Example, deserved his Fate.’

What do you think?

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