A point for clarification: Two women named Mary Wills occur in the records on London Lives during a similar period of time. However the records they feature in are different, as the Mary Wills whose life is explored here is predominantly in the records relating to crimes that took place in the City of London whereas the other features in records for poor relief and bastardy examinations in the parish of St Clement Danes. As there is no clear evidence that these records all refer to the same person, it is assumed that they are two different women.
A Thief who Stole to Sell
Born around 1757 Mary first appears in the records in 1775 on trial at the Old Bailey for stealing. Mary was accused of three additional crimes until her last appearance in the records in 1783. We do not know much more about the circumstances of her life except that she was married to a man named William Wills. A man of this name also appears as the accused in Old Bailey trials in 1783 and later years, however as this is a common name in the records we cannot know if this was Mary’s husband.
Mary first appears in the Old Bailey Sessions Papers and the subsequent account of her criminal trial, on 26th April 1775. Mary was accused of ‘stealing twelve pewter plates, value three shillings, two pewter dishes, value one shilling, four copper saucepans, value two shillings, a copper tea-kettle, value six-pence, two bed quilts, value two shillings, and a pound weight of tea, value four shillings’ in a trial along with Mary Ward, who was accused of receiving these stolen goods. Both were acquitted of this crime, possibly because the prosecutor failed to show up. As these goods were of value, it appears Mary stole them to sell on as a form of income, possibly as part of a trading network.
Mary is absent from the records until 9 December 1778, when she again appears at the Old Bailey, indicted for stealing a cotton gown, worth three shillings and a linen handkerchief valued at four pence. Once again she was found not guilty, because the 'prosecutrix', or victim of the crime, did not appear. 1
It is not clear what Mary did between 1778 and 1783, as she is again absent from the records. However, in February 1783, Mary was accused of two crimes. These first appear in the City of London Sessions Papers, where she was indicted by the grand jury after the evidence produced was considered sufficient to proceed to trial at the Old Bailey.2
Mary was accused of stealing pewter pots on two separate occasions by similar methods; through ordering of 'Purl', an alcoholic drink. The first case was brought before Thomas Sainsbury and the second before William Gills, and the individuals accusing Mary of the crime were different in both cases, although the owners of the pots were both ‘victuallers’, or grocers. In the first crime, she ordered ‘a Pint of Purl as for herself’ from John Scandrett and then ‘directed three Pints of Purl to be made for the other Informant Fowler’.
She then reportedly left with the pewter pots that the drink was served in and was seen throwing away the liquid. James Fowler, the man for whom she had allegedly ordered the three pints, apprehended her and found that she had stolen the pots. The relationship between Wills and Fowler is unclear as it appears they were acquaintances, yet he denied that she had ordered the Purl for him, and said he was the person who was told that she threw away the liquid and kept hold of the pots. Customers were expected to return these containers, as shown in the second case, as the grocer accusing her of theft, David Petrie, discovered she had stolen the pots on asking for them from Mrs Wetton, the woman for whom Mary was alleged to have been ordered the purl. In this case however, Mary was not directly apprehended and it was when William Catchpole searched a man named John Rappitt’s house that she was accused; Rappitt insisted his wife bought the stolen pots from Mary Wills.
The purpose of these thefts appears to have been to sell the pots on so the pewter could be melted down and sold, as melted pewter was also found in John Rappitt’s house. The method of theft used by Mary appears to have been relatively successful; despite being on trial twice for the same type of crime she was only caught outright once, when apprehended by James Fowler. This could imply that she had been earning money through this method for some time, perhaps to supplement any other form of income she used to survive. She does not appear in poor relief records, indicating she had other forms of support or means of income other than from the parish.
A few days later, on 26th February 1783, Mary was tried for both these thefts at the Old Bailey. She was first tried before the London jury for ‘feloniously stealing on the 9th of February instant, one quart pewter pot, value 12 d. and one pint pewter pot, value 6 d. the property of John Scandret’. Mary is recorded as having nothing to say in her defence and was found guilty of stealing to the value of 9d. In reducing the estimated value of the stolen goods, the jury changed her charge from the felony of grand larceny to petty larceny, which carried a lesser sentence. This practice, known as 'pious perjury', was common in a system where many crimes carried the death sentence and both jurors and judges were reluctant to condemn convicts to death.3
In the second trial, before the first Middlesex jury, also on 26th February, Mary was ‘indicted for feloniously stealing, on the 19th of February instant, two pewter quart pots, value 2 s. the goods of David Petrie'. William Catchpole, a witness for the prosecution, testified that Mary admitted to selling pots to John Rappitt’s household. In her defence Mary claimed ‘it was poverty and distress, I had not a bit of bread to eat, and they promised me to forgive me.’ When reporting the verdict, the account refers to her previous trial in the publication as ‘No.189’, confirming that the Mary Wills in both trials is the same woman. Although the jury was not moved by her defence, finding her guilty, it appears that the judge was, as she was sentenced only to be privately whipped and confined to hard labour in Clerkenwell house of correction for a year, and not transported.
Later that year, in October 1783, in the Middlesex sessions papers, a report from the apothecary to the jails of New Prison and Bridewell Clerkenwell states that Mary was ill with fever and cold. She seemed to have recovered somewhat by early January because she was well enough to care for another prisoner, William Hill and 'Attended the Deceased [Hill] During the Latter part of his Illness'. Mary’s final appearance in the sessions papers occurs in the last month of her incarceration, suggesting that she completed her year long sentence and was released. After this she disappears from the records; she may have lived an honest life, or continued to rely on her income from theft without being caught.
3 Verdicts OldBaileyOnline.org ⇑