Old Tales of a Young Country

George Barrington, Pickpocket and Historian

Marcus Clarke

MOST people have heard of George Barrington, the pickpocket. His name has become notorious—I had almost written famous—for gentlemanly larceny. Bulwer has dished up an imitation of him in Paul Clifford, and Lever has introduced him bodily into The O’Donoghue. I read once a highly-spiced romance called by his name, and purporting to be an account of his doings, in that oracle of nurserymaids the London Journal, and I came very near to seeing a sensation drama in five acts, of which he was the intelligent hero. I have heard his name mentioned with almost as much admiration as that of Jack Sheppard by pipe-smoking “old hands,” yarning while the sheep were camped; and I have seen a picture of him—Claude Duval dashed with Almaviva—presiding at a banquet as the Prince of Prigs. That he was the prince of prigs in the age of the first gentleman in Europe, there can be no doubt. He robbed with grace, and broke the eighth commandment with an air. He was not such a grand speculator as Price, otherwise Old Patch; he did not ride so dashingly as Claude Duval; he had not the more solid qualities of M. Vidocq, nor the enterprising financial ability of Sir John Dean Paul; but he was, in his way, as smart a fellow as any of them. He lived merrily all his life, and having been transported, made the best of his altered circumstances, took the goods the gods provided him, became superintendent of convicts at Parramatta, wrote a history of his adopted country, and died in the odour of respectability.

It is on account of his latter exploit in the way of authorship that I have elected to tell the true story of his life in these pages. Strangely enough, however, though Messrs. Sherwood, Neily, and Jones, of 5 Newgate-street, London, published, in the year 1810, in two volumes quarto, a History of New South Wales, by George Barrington, superintendent of convicts, the literary fame of its author was not much enhanced. His speeches, at his trials, were excellent, but his writing is execrable. The History is a very slip-slop piece of work; and is, moreover, according to Dr. Lang, untrustworthy.1 As a thief, Mr. Barrington was not above suspicion. As an author, he is beneath contempt. One would have thought that so ingenious a stealer of other men’s property could not but have succeeded in literature; but, strange to say, he neglected the advantages afforded by his early training, and consequently has not achieved literary distinction.

George Barrington was born in the year 1755 at Maynooth, in Kildare. His real name was Waldron, and his parents seem to have occupied the position of respectable cottagers. They were themselves in straitened circumstances, and their son would have grown up without education had not his precocious talents attracted the attention of a benevolent clergyman, who placed the lad at school in Dublin. He was liberally supplied with money by his patron, who announced his intention of starting him in life. At sixteen years of age, however, he quarrelled with another lad, and stabbed him with a penknife. For this, Waldron was severely flogged, and smarting as much from wounded vanity as from loss of cuticle, he determined to run away. The same night he packed up his clothes, stole twelve guineas from his master, and a gold repeater from his master’s sister, and scaling the school wall, set out in the middle of the night to seek his fortune. Such as it was, he soon found it. Putting up the next evening at a small inn in the town of Drogheda, he heard that a company of strolling players were to perform that night, and, boy-like, went to see them.

The manager of this company was a man named Price. He was of gentlemanly exterior, of reputed good family, and agreeable figure, but having been detected in the commission of some fraud, was outlawed to Ireland. Price fell in with the boy, took a fancy to him, heard his story, and enrolled him as a member of his company. Burning with theatrical ambition, Barrington—as he now called himself—essayed the part of Jaffier in Venice Preserved, and made a hit. He had a speaking eye, a good figure, a handsome face, some talent, and a prodigious memory. The last two qualities gave him success in his new rôle; the first three gained him the heart of the Belvidera of the night. This was a young girl of respectable connections and some education, who had been seduced and deserted by a lieutenant of marines, and thrown upon her own resources for a livelihood. She appears, however, to have been more sinned against than sinning, and to have in some degree merited the affection which the ardent, impulsive youth showed for her. Into this lioison Barrington, like the young gentleman in the “Disowned,” fell—or jumped—headlong, and the company secured his services.

For some time life seemed cheery enough. With love in the person of the lively actress, and fame in the shape of the thumpings of the thick sticks of an Irish audience, Barrington was satisfied. But soon there came a change. At Londonderry, Manager Price announced that he was in difficulties. Barrington’s stolen watch had long ago disappeared, and the twelve guineas had quickly melted in the sun of Belvidera’s smiles. The “company”—poor devils—had not a sou amongst them. In this dilemma Mr. Price suggested pocket-picking, and Barrington—with Belvidera in tears—consented. What with pocket-picking and play-acting the winter of 1771 passed pleasantly enough, but falling sick of a fever, Barrington was left behind by the ungrateful Price, and came near dying. Belvidera, however, refused to desert her lover, and nursed him to a recovery. A few weeks after, the poor faithful wicked little soul—she was only eighteen—was drowned crossing the Boyne.

Barrington, upon this, set out to look for Price, and found him at Cork, picking pockets. He told him of his loss.

“Join your fortunes with mine, lad!” says Price over a bowl of punch. “Fools were made for men like us to live upon!”

The compact was soon made. Barrington took the part of a young gentleman of fashion, and Price that of his tutor. They frequented assemblies, balls, and races, and by the end of the year made £1000. Emboldened by success, Price became less cautious in his operations, was detected, convicted, and sent to the plantations. His hopeful pupil, turning his head from the card-table, saw the arrest of his friend, and with a plausible excuse, rose, slipped out, and took horse for Dublin.

At Dublin, he was caught on the racecourse, but, restoring the snatched purse to its owner, was permitted to escape. Judging that the story would soon get wind, he wisely started for London.

Now begins a new phase in his career. He had been the Bohemian, the strolling player, the bon camarado of bully-rooks and swindlers. He would take a new line of action. He would be the gentleman, the gamester, the man of fashion. He sailed in the “Dorset” yacht (which had on board the Duke of Leinster), and there he made the acquaintance of a Mr. H.  Mr. H. was a pigeon of admirable feather. Rich, and of good family, he was well worth the plucking. Young, vain, and innocent, he was easy to be plucked. To this young man Barrington introduced himself as a man of fortune “travelling for his health,” and they soon became firm friends. With the remnant of his Irish booty, Barrington rivalled his friend in extravagance, and the two seem to have seen the usual round of London dissipation. When Mr. H. wanted money, he drew a cheque on his bankers; when Mr. Barrington’s funds were low, he picked a pocket. Meanwhile, the dice-box rattled, and the cards were dealt frequently. Ecart é was a favourite game of the fashionable Mr. Barrington, and he had a knack of “turning the king” that was both curious and profitable. It was not fated, however, that he should keep his dish all to himself. One night at Ranelagh, while indulging in his usual depredations, he was accosted by a stranger. “I know you,” said this man; “I came over in the yacht with you from Ireland. I saw you pick that gentleman’s pocket. You are a scoundrel, sir; and unless you divide, I hand you over to the police!”

The booty was nearly £100 in gold, and some five watches, but the virtuous stranger was firm. They adjourned to a tavern, and Barrington divided the spoil.

The stranger turned out to be a swindler named James, who had been the possessor of £300 a-year; but having ruined himself at the gaming-table, had turned highwayman. A bullet wound received on Finchley Common incapacitated him for his profession, and he then turned parson and pickpocket. With this worthy, Barrington joined his fortunes, and introducing him to poor H. as “Captain” James, the two rooked him without mercy.

The “Thatched House” and the “Devil’s Tavern” at Temple Bar were the favourite resorts of the two friends, and they soon became famous for their easy bearing and gentlemanly address. Cautious and cool, Barrington mixed in the best society, and picked its aristocratic pockets without detection. The noblemen of his acquaintance bewailed their losses to him, and he cheered them with his sympathy, or roused them with his wit. The memory which enabled him to play Jaffier at twelve hours’ notice stood him in stead in his new part of gentleman of quality. He read largely, and remembered what he read. His natural talents were great, his impudence unbounded, his nerve admirable; he was Barry Lyndon varnished; he wanted but a touch of genius to become Vautrin.

In the summer of 1775 he visited the “waters” in company with other dandies, and at Brighton—then called Brightelmstone, and only in the bud of its Georgian blossom—he fell in with Lord Ancaster and Sir Alexander Leith, and was entertained by them with much gravity. During this time he still continued his partnership with James, who acted as jackal to the more noble beast of prey, and found out his game for him. Moreover, in his late profession of high toby man, Mr. James had become acquainted with that useful creature, a “fence,” or receiver of stolen goods, who purchased the commodities which the firm had for sale, and asked no questions. It is just probable that Barrington imagined that his partner—jackal as he was—retained the lion’s share of the booty, for in the beginning of the next spring I find him employing a Mr. Lowe as his chancellor of the exchequer.

Lowe had been a livery-stable keeper, landlord of a sporting public-house, and usurer. His last speculation, while it enriched him considerably, enlarged his circle of acquaintance. He took a respectable house in Bloomsbury, lived like a man of easy fortune, and “put away” large quantities of stolen goods. To him Barrington linked his fortunes. James, at first disgusted, and then indignant, appears to have accepted the inevitable, and retired into private life. Like the wicked marquise of the old, or the Becky Sharpe of the modern Balzac, he “sought the consolations of religion.” He retired to a monastery, and left all his earnings to the Church. Lowe, by the way, was not so fortunate. He was tried for firing a hospital at Kentish Town, of which he was treasurer, and poisoned himself in prison in 1779.

In conjunction with this worthy man Barrington rapidly rose to eminence. He went to Court on the Queen’s birthday, and in addition to innumerable snuff-boxes and purses, cut off the collar of an Order of the Garter, and sold the diamonds to a Dutch Jew who came over from Holland each year to purchase stolen jewels. Encouraged by his success, he next attempted to steal Prince Orloff’s diamond snuff-box, at Covent-garden Theatre. This box was of gold, thickly studded with brilliants, and was presented to the illustrious Russian by the Empress Catherine. It was supposed to be worth £30,000. Barrington seated himself next the Prince and secured the box, but the Russian caught him by the collar, and handed him over to the police. Being brought before Sir John Fielding, the wily prisoner set forth a sad case with such semblance of truth that the goodnatured Prince declined to press the charge, and he escaped with a caution. This exposure, however, ruined his social reputation, and being turned out of his old haunts he was compelled to hunt smaller game. In 1777 he was detected picking the pocket of a trull at Drury-lane Theatre, and was sentenced to three years’ hard labour in the hulks. Here his behaviour was so good that he was released after twelve months, and six months after his liberation was again detected picking pockets at St. Sepulchre’s Church, and sentenced for five years. The “hulks” of those days was a terrible place. Men and women were crowded together. Oaths, dirt, drink, and the cat embroidered the prison garments. Prisoners were treated like beasts, and behaved like beasts. The lash cut the manhood out of them. Here Barrington seems to have suffered severely in mind and body. He tried to escape twice and to stab himself once, but was unsuccessful in all three efforts. His misery, however, attracted the attention of a wealthy associate of former days, who, exerting his influence with the Government, succeeded in getting Barrington’s release, on condition that he should exile himself, as his old patron, manager Price, had done, to Ireland. Here he resumed his old occupation, until Dublin was too hot to hold him; and then taking Scotland by the way, returned to England.

His star shone brighter now than ever. He stole £600 at Chester, £1000 at York, and 500 guineas at Bath. He was the chat of the coffee-houses, the scandal of the wells. His person was well known. He was the hero of a hundred stories. He achieved a reputation for gallantry. Fine ladies were in love with him, or professed to be. He was reported to have robbed the King’s coach, and to have intrigued with a royal duchess. He was captured once or twice, but always escaped. He had plenty of money, and turnkeys—in those days, at all events—were not angels. He jumped from one disguise to another with the nimbleness of a harlequin. Now he was here, now there. One day he would be a quack doctor at Bath, the next a respectable bagman at Gloucester. He kept an E.O. table at the races on Monday, and on Tuesday borrowed £20 as a Methodist missionary desirous of turning heathen souls to God. Even when arrested, his wit and manners saved him from the ready rope. Being seized at Newcastle, he was sent in irons to Newgate, but pleaded so successfully with his friends, that they raised 100 guineas for him, and spending it in feeing an astute counsel, he escaped again through some legal quibble.

At last he was cought and held tight.

A Mr. Henry Hare Townsend having entered a nag for the Enfield races, had gone down to see how fortune would turn. He had his watch and seals with him, in his waist-coat pocket. As he was leading his horse down the course, he was jostled by a person in light-coloured clothes, from whom he demanded, with an oath, what he wanted, but got no reply. A few moments after a Mr. Blades—a sporting friend of his—came up, and asked him if he had not been robbed. Clapping his hand to his pocket, he discovered the loss of his watch, and instantly suspected the awkward gentleman in buff. This was Barrington. Seeing him the other side of the course, Townsend and Blades went round and seized him, Townsend saying, “You d—d rascal, you’ve got my watch!” They took him into a booth, and there several witnesses of credibility swore that they saw him drop the stolen property. On Wednesday morning, 15th September, 1790, he was tried and convicted.

Barrington made an able defence, commenting on the unfavourable opinion which the jury entertained of him, and the facts that no one saw him take the watch, nor could absolutely swear that he dropped it. Referring to his expectation of a death sentence, he said that he should bear it with fortitude, as he was innocent and maligned, but that if time were given him to repent, he would do so without delay. The jury, impressed by his eloquence, sentenced him to seven years’ transportation. They could have hung him if they chose. On Wednesday, the 22nd of September, the Recorder pronounced sentence on him, and the accomplished scoundrel took leave of him in the following neat and appropriate speech, to which Mr. Owen Suffolk,2 late of this colony, could perhaps alone supply a parallel:—

“My Lord—I have a great deal to say in extenuation of the crime for which I now stand convicted at this bar; but upon consideration, I will not arrest the attention of the honourable Court too long. Among the extraordinary vicissitudes incident to human nature, it is the peculiar and unfortunate lot of some devoted persons to have their best wishes and their most earnest endeavours to deserve the good opinion of the most respectable part of society frustrated. Whatever they say, or whatever they do, every word and its meaning, every action and its motive, is represented in an unfavourable light, and is distorted from the real intention of the speaker or the actor. That this has been my unhappy fate does not seem to need much confirmation. Every effort to deserve well of mankind, that my heart bore witness to, its rectitude has been frustrated by such measures as these, and consequently rendered abortive. Many of the circumstances of my life, I can, without any violation of the truth, declare to have therefore happened absolutely in spite of myself. The world, my lord, has given me credit for abilities, indeed much greater than I possess, and therefore much more than I deserved; but I had never found any kind hand to foster those abilities. I might ask, where was the generous and powerful hand that was ever stretched forth to rescue George Barrington from infamy? In an age like this, which in several respects is so justly famed for liberal sentiments, it was my severe lot that no noble-minded gentleman stepped forward and said—‘Barrington, you are possessed of talents which may be useful to society. I feel for your situation, and as long as you act the part of a good citizen, I will be your protector; you will have time and opportunity to rescue yourself from the obloquy of your former conduct.’ Alas, my lord, George Barrington had never the supreme felicity of having such comfort administered to his wounded spirit. As matters have unfortunately turned out, the die is cast; and as it is, I have resigned to my fate without one murmur of complaint.”

Being shipped off to his new home, Mr. Barrington not only conducted himself with propriety, but did the State some service. A mutiny broke out on board the convict-ship. The convicts attempted to seize the vessel and take her to America, “where,” says Barrington in his account of the voyage, “they expected to not only attain their liberty, but receive a tract of land from Congress.” The plot was laid with some ingenuity, and on an occasion when the captain and officers were below examining the stowage of the wine, the mutineers attempted to get possession of the ship; but Barrington, snatching up a handspike, kept the hatchway until the officers came to his assistance. The two ring-leaders were hung at the yard-arm that very afternoon, and the others severely flogged. This service caused the gentlemanly convict to receive some attention. He had the run of the store-room on board, and was recommended to Governor Phillip as soon as the ship anchored at Sydney.

The Governor received him with kindness, appointed him superintendent of convicts, and in November, 1792, he entered upon that office by virtue of one of the first warrants of emancipation granted in the colony.

From this time Mr. Barrington seems to have conducted himself with propriety, and to have given up the follies of his youth. It is possible, indeed, that police were more plentiful than purses in the land of his adoption. However, he made an admirable superintendent of convicts, and would address his petty officers in tones which yet faintly smacked of the Phoenix and Ranelagh. At the expiration of his sentence he was but 44 years old, but he settled in Parramatta, and lived to a good old age, though I cannot find the precise date of his death. The author of a little book called Australian Discovery and Colonisation, published 1850, says that at that time the interesting thief was still remembered by some of the early residents as a very gentlemanly old man, scrupulously neat in dress and courteous in deportment. In addition to his “history,” which he dedicated with characteristic impudence to “His Gracious Majesty,” Barrington was the reputed author of the celebrated prologue to the “Revenge,” spoken on the 16th January, 1796, at the first dramatic performance given in the colony, and which from the neatness of the couplet—

“True patriots we, for be it understood,
We left our country for our country’s good”—

has been often quoted. There is more reason, however, to suppose that some officer of literary ability and cultivated tastes was the author. No convict would have written such a cutting satire upon colonial society and his own pretensions to respectability. Moreover, the neatness of the prologue is in striking contrast to the slovenliness of the history. It is impossible to imagine that the same hand wrote both.

1.    Mr. West says that Barrington did not write the history at all, but that the booksellers pirated Colonel Collins’ New South Wales, and affixed the pickpocket name as an attraction.    West’s Tasmania , vol. ii., p. 145.    [back]

2.    A convict who, after many imprisonments, wrote an account of his misdeeds, which under the title of “Days of Crime, and Years of Suffering” was published in the Australasian, the principal weekly family paper in Victoria. The talented author went to England, and is again in jail.    [back]

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