When a Folkestone baker fell foul of a confidence trickster it was not so much a case of the wrong trousers as the missing ones! But what really happened … and who was telling the truth?

The case of the baker’s missing breeches

Fascinating, dangerous and dirty, 18th century Southwark was Kent’s gateway to London. The trial of Mary Smith offers an insight into a bustling commercial hub that was also a refuge for thieves, fraudsters and highwaymen, revealing the kind of trap that awaited unwitting ‘countrymen’ such as Folkestone baker William Hutchins.

When William visited Southwark in 1781, he could not have foreseen the unfortunate consequences of his trip. After many uncomfortable hours either in the saddle or bouncing over potholes in a badly-sprung carriage, he probably alighted at one of the twenty-three coaching inns in Borough High Street. He may then have taken a draft of ale at The George Inn which still survives, much as William would have seen it, with its unique first-floor gallery.

The reason for William’s visit to London is uncertain. Perhaps he had come up on business, intending to sell his wares in Borough market or to visit one of the corn-factors who operated from the collection of buildings known as Bridge House. He might even have been looking for work. However, while business may have been his primary motive, he also appears to have made time for some carousing in the local ale-houses. By the time he ran – literally – into Mary Smith, he had been in Southwark for several hours and was somewhat the worse for wear.

“About eight at night, I was coming out of a cook’s shop, and ran full-but against this woman,” William recalls.

There followed a brief exchange in which William claimed to know the woman and in which she subsequently offered to put him up in her room. William accepted, claiming that he went to sleep almost immediately. Later, when questioned if he had been “in liquor”, he made a partial admission: “Not so much in liquor but I knew what I did.”

The rest is farce. William awoke next day to find that he had been relieved of his breeches, coat, waistcoat, stockings, neck-cloth and handkerchief as well as fifteen shillings. He had been left only his shoes, buckles, shirt, hat and a second pair of stockings “tied up in a twist” that had been accidentally dropped by the thief.

In an embarrassing state of undress, William was about to send for new apparel, when an old woman appeared at the lodging carrying his lost garments. With unusual generosity, Mary Smith’s boyfriend and partner-in-crime had sent the clothes back. His reason?

 “D--- it! I don’t mind robbing a man, but you don’t leave him stark naked.”

Initially, when the local justice caught up with Mary, she admitted pawning the stockings and neck-cloth in The Strand. However, by the time the case came to trial at the Old Bailey, she had changed her story, saying that William had claimed to know her from Maidstone – a connection that she denied – and had followed her home. In order to get rid of him, she had thrown his clothes out of the window.

By now, William had become a reluctant witness, claiming that he would have been willing to drop the case had he only been able to get his neck-cloth and stockings back. (Oddly, he made no mention of the breeches!) However, faced with a £40 fine if he failed to prosecute, William had no choice.

Still insisting that he had known Mary previously, William seemed almost desperate to excuse her. He suggested that the neck-cloth and stockings might have been dropped by the old woman who returned his clothes “in a confused manner” and that the old woman might even have taken his 15s.

However, when asked if he had been sufficiently sober to identify Mary as the woman who had been in the bed-room with him, William’s gallantry suddenly deserted him. His reply?

“Yes; but she looked better by candle-light than she does now by daylight.”

Convinced of Mary’s guilt, the judge added injury to William’s insult, sentencing her to a whipping and three months in prison.

Did either of the protagonists learn their lesson? Did William, chastened by his experience, ever return to London? And did Mary, the aspiring seductress and thief, become an honest woman? Sadly, the records are silent.

Sources:

The trial of Mary Smith from Proceedings of the Old Bailey Online at: http://www.oldbaileyonline.org/browse.jsp?id=t17811017-38&div=t17811017-38&terms=Kent#highlight

John Noorthouck’s A New History of London (publd. 1773): 'Book 3, Ch. 1: Southwark' (at British History Online): http://www.british-history.ac.uk/report.aspx?compid=46773&strquery=Borough

'Borough High Street', Survey of London: volume 22: Bankside (the parishes of St. Saviour and Christchurch Southwark) (1950), pp. 9-30 (at British History Online): http://www.british-history.ac.uk/report.aspx?compid=65313

The George Inn, Borough High Street (National Trust: for a photograph of London’s last galleried inn): http://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/main/w-georgeinn