Barclay, John, b. c.1805

From Libel to Bigamy

John Barclay was put on trial at the Old Bailey on at least two occasions: once, for selling a libellous pamphlet; and later, for bigamy. His case illustrates the complexity of the lives of many of those who came before the Old Bailey.

Link to the Digital Panopticon life archive.

Early Life

John was born in 1804 or 1805. We know almost nothing about his early life, but by the age of 17, he was apprenticed to William T. Sherwin and learning his trade as a printer. Sherwin was a colleague and associate of Richard Carlile, the radical bookseller and freethinker famous for his journal The Republican.

As part of his apprenticeship, John was articled to Carlile. He was one of several booksellers who helped to run Carlile’s shop on Fleet Street, “The Temple of Reason”, while Carlile himself was imprisoned in Dorchester Gaol.

Crimes and Trials


John was committed to prison in late December 1821 or early January 1822, and charged with libel. His trial took place on 20 February 1822. It was one of a set of closely linked prosecutions, levelled against four booksellers who had been running Carlile’s shop in his absence. Barclay was the youngest of the prisoners. The others were William Vamplew Holmes (tried as William Vamplue), Joseph Rhodes (tried as William Holmes), and Humphrey Boyle (tried as an unnamed defendant). The mistakes in these three names came about due to various blunders by the authorities involved, and by the defendants’ unwillingness to set the record straight (Carlile 1822a, p.3).

The main evidence against John was brought by a Bow Street constable named John Purton, who had bought the pamphlet in question from John on 21 December 1821. John had initially refused to give his name, but revealed it “not very reluctantly” after his arrest.

Unlike his three associates, John did not defend himself in court, although his advocate took a thorough approach to John's defence, including calling a witness to testify to his good character. This, together with his youth and the fact that he was an apprentice, may have contributed to his relatively lenient sentence of six months’ imprisonment, plus the requirement to pay recognizances for £100 to keep the peace for three years.


On 16 December 1824, John married an Elizabeth Cornelius. The relationship broke down when Elizabeth left him to live with a man named Lacey. Some eighteen months later, on 25 June 1827, he married a Mary Phillips while Elizabeth was still alive. Mary testified that she lived amicably with John for twelve months, before he lost his employment. Mary applied to the parish for relief and, according to John, “they made inquiries”.

At this stage, John seems to have decided to cash in on his marriage to Mary. She testified that “he made away with my clothes, and the tickets of my property”. In his defence, John pointed out that the pawned clothes had raised only around 2l.

John was tried for bigamy on 11 September 1828. He painted a picture of youthful foolishness, telling the court: “I was under age when I married my first wife, and my last wife was under age when I married her. I hope you will be as lenient as possible, as both the acts were committed without due consideration.”

John was sentenced to six months’ imprisonment in the house of correction. Although John Barclay is a reasonably common name, we can be quite confident this is the same man, because not only does the age match, but the Middlesex Criminal Registers also record his occupation as a printer.

Punishment and Outcomes

John was imprisoned for his first offence in the Giltspur Street Compter. He submitted a petition to the House of Commons, which was debated there at some length, in March 1822. The petition objected to John's having been tried by the same jury which had already found William Vamplue guilty, and had thus effectively prejudged his case (Carlile 1822b, pp.21-27). John's advocate had raised this as a matter of concern in the trial, but the court rejected it.

Although John was only sentenced to imprisonment, it seems that he was also required to do hard labour whilst in prison - another issue that was raised in the House of Commons debate (Carlile 1822b, p. iv).

John spent his second term of imprisonment, for bigamy, in a house of correction.

Personal Details and Life Events

Most of what we know about John's personal life comes from his second trial. He was married twice but both partnerships broke down: once when his wife left him to live with another man, and again when his second marriage was revealed as bigamous. There is no record of either marriage producing any children.

John's first wedding took place in Newington, and his second in Stepney. This suggests that he was a reasonably mobile Londoner - perhaps unsurprisingly so, if he had relocated to avoid being detected in his second marriage.

Later Years

Nothing is known of John's later years, after his second period of imprisonment.

Wider Context

John's first trial was one of many prosecutions levelled against those booksellers who worked for the imprisoned radical and freethinker Richard Carlile. While Carlile was incarcerated in Dorchester Gaol, supporters took over the running of his shop, often willingly putting themselves at risk of prosecution. John was thus part of Carlile's large, country-wide network of supporters. Both men and women stepped forward; Carlile's wife Jane and his sister Mary Anne were among those imprisoned for his cause.

The main witness for the prosecution, John Purton, had been sent to Carlile’s shop to buy the pamphlet by a member of the “Constitutional Association”, a society set up to push for the prosecution of works they considered licentious or seditious. John’s trial is a good illustration of the legal clout of such societies. (One of the most famous was the Society for the Suppression of Vice, known as the “Vice Society”.)

The Old Bailey Proceedings give a brief account of John's trial, but Carlile's published version is substantially longer. Whilst this may partly be due to the more concise nature of the Proceedings (and perhaps some embellishments from the radical printer), Carlile's version also contains large chunks of material which are wholly absent from the Proceedings. Most notably, the defence's lengthy objection to the jury is wholly missing from the official record of the trial. This suggests the extent of censorship at work in the Proceedings, in politically sensitive cases.

Further Information


Libel, bigamy, imprisonment, recidivism, petitioning, religious offences, seditious words

Author Credits

This page was written by Fiona Milne with additional contributions by other members of the Digital Panopticon project team.