1921: Baron Roman von Ungern-Sternberg 1858: Preston Turley, drunkard preacher

1776: Robert Harley and Edward George, tea smugglers

September 16th, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1776, Robert Harley and Edward George hanged at Tyburn for murder.

Harley and George are the postscript to a strange story already seen on this site — that of Smugglerius, the ecorche whose model might very well be Robert Harley’s brother Benjamin who preceded him a few months in death, for the same crime.


A copy of Agostino Carlini‘s bronze cast of “Smugglerius”, displayed in Edinburgh. (cc) image from Chris Hill.

It’s the macabre relic that inevitably draws the eyeballs, so much so that we scarcely touched on the activities of the smugglers behind the Smugglerius — but their story in life is as historically fascinating as their post-mortem artistic appropriation.*

The contraband in question for these smugglers was tea, and it’s not that tea was illegal — in Britain? never! The empire’s extension to India and China had sent Blighty tea-mad in the 1700s, even though the next century would be madder still, and the brew’s ubiquity had turned it into a magnet for taxation by a state that had world wars to fund.

Tariffs on import tea rose and fell during the 18th century, and when they went up, well, tea got smuggled.

At our moment in the story, tea imports to Britain are being taxed quite heavily,** to the flourishing of an illicit traffic: something like 4 to 7 million pounds of the stuff per annum.

Tea leaked around the customs-men and into England everywhere but one of its most common vectors was riding alongside legitimate cargoes: captains and crew bound from the Orient would overload the hold, and stuff their personal effects to boot, with the lucrative leaf.

At docks like Deptford — a common stopping-point for many seaworthy vessels where the Thames narrowed — the bustle of sea dogs and stevedores made it all but impossible to police what was coming off the bulging East Indiamen. This was the smuggling haven where this date’s tragedy began.

Few Britons outside the Exchequer felt the least qualms about a trade that fed such a voracious and harmless demand; in periods of aggressive taxation the majority of tea that warmed English cockles was illegally imported in one form or another. In his entry for March 29, 1777 Rev. James Woodforde‘s diary casually recorded that “Andrews the Smuggler brought me this night about 11 o’clock a bagg of Hyson Tea 6 Pd weight. He frightened us a little by whistling under the Parlour Window just as we were going to bed. I gave him some Geneva and paid him for the tea at 10/6 per Pd.” (The good minister also got that gin on the black market; sugar, too.)

Yet Andrews could probably attest that merely by virtue of its underground character, tea-smuggling was a dangerous line of work … as was suppressing it.

One night in April of this same year, a quartet of customs officials having been tipped to a run of illegal tea along the Deptford turnpike set out to intercept it.

Whether product of cunning counterintelligence or a mischievious informer, the tea peddlers were alerted to their hunters and in place of contraband sent up the road a much larger force of toughs that surrounded the taxmen in the dark. A witness would report seeing the chief smuggler, a character with the colorfully underworld moniker of “Gypsy George”† pay a bunch of brawlers half a crown apiece for their service as muscle that night.

To read the testimony of a surviving victim, William Anchor, in the Old Bailey record of the trial is to come face to face with the elemental terror of crime in any age.

they asked us, what business we had there, b – t you, you are come to rob a man of his property? they continued to surround us; I told them to keep off or I would shoot them; they drew all up into a company together at about twenty yards from us; the deceased said, I am well acquainted with Deptford, follow me, I will go to the watch-house, I said with all my heart; I followed him; they kept following us, crying, B – t them, here are two of them, let us sacrifice them: then Pierson and I ran towards the watch-house, they ran after us …

Careening through the night with a pack of goons at their heels the two customs men missed their turn towards the safety of a watch-house

but never mind it, come along; they kept very nigh us, we told them to keep back or we would shoot them; Pierson ran between the posts and the houses on the left hand side upon Deptford Green which leads down to Deptford Lower Water-gate; I kept in the middle of the green; he kept calling to me, come along; I said, here I come, my boy, for G – d’s sake don’t run so; he took the second turning that is on the right side, which leads into Hughes’s field: he turned in there, they cried out, B – t them, here they are, let’s sacrifice them: I heard Pierson cry out, O dear, one or two of the party followed him; there were five of them came down the green after me; I kept strait on, but I heard his voice.

Anchor took a whack or two but managed to escape and

did not see Pierson again till about two hours after; he was then going into a boat; he had many cuts in his head, his left arm was broke, and his legs much bruised; his left ear was cut in two, and he was all over blood.

Pierson and Anchor had left their two comrades behind in the flight but both those two men also managed to get away after only a roughing-up. Pierson’s injuries, however, proved to be mortal — but only after a month’s miserable suffering at the hospital, where, a surgeon recalled, Pierson “could not move a limb.”

To judge by the evidence of the goon who turned crown’s evidence against our luckless pair, it was just Pierson’s bad luck that he was the one of the four with a rage-addled Gypsy George on his tail.

Gypsy George knocked him down with his stick, then we all hit him with our sticks that we had in our hands.

Q. How long did you beat him?

Gypsy George kept beating him about ten minutes or a quarter of an hour; the others did not hit him above one blow a-piece.

Q. Did the two prisoners among the rest strike him?

Yes.

Q. Did the man cry out, or make any lamentation?

Yes, he did.

Q. And all this while the two prisoners were with you?

Yes.

Q. What part of the body did they hit him on?

Somewhere about the shoulder, or thereabouts; we begged of Gypsy George not to beat him any more, but we were afraid to prevent Gypsy George, left the other smugglers should come up and use us ill; Benjamin Harley, and Robert Harley, and myself, begged of him not to beat him any more.

Q. After this did you leave the man?

We left him, and came away about forty or fifty yards; then Gypsy George said, He had not given him enough, he would go back and give him some more; Gypsy George went back, and we all followed him; Pierson had moved several yards towards some of the pallisadoes; Gypsy George heard him groan, and he gave him several more violent blows.

Half a crown wasn’t enough pay to give this kind of thrashing, but it seems to have been enough to prevent anyone interceding against the boss’s fury.

The men’s defense comprised little but a train of adequate-not-compelling character witnesses; George attempted to establish an alibi for himself by having a friendly witness embark a hearsay shaggy-dog story that amusingly (not amusing for George) led to this cutoff in the transcript:

COURT. That is not evidence.

Both were doomed on Friday to hang the very next Monday, with post-mortem anatomization into the bargain too. The trade in untaxed tea continued unabated on Tuesday.

* Despite the categorical language in this post, it is not certain that either Benjamin Harley or Thomas Henman is in fact the source corpse behind Smugglerius. It’s been argued recently that Smugglerius might have been a different hanged man, James Langar.

** The tea taxes that so incensed American colonists amounted to the New World extension of the same policy.

† Gypsy George was not captured; he surely would have hanged if he had been. George was rumored to have slipped into Newgate in a disguise to pay a secret visit to his erstwhile hirelings.

‡ Both Harley and George were coal heavers by day, another profession with a rich tradition of unauthorized economy.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Drugs,England,Execution,Hanged,History,Murder,Public Executions

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