Humphrey Crawley was convicted in 1803 of endeavouring to convince a soldier to join a secret society that planned to support Napoleon in the event of a French invasion. With the Napoleonic wars underway, this was a serious offence and Humphrey was sentenced to death, although he was later pardoned.
We know almost nothing about Humphrey’s early life, except that he was born around 1764 in Ireland.
Humphrey was bought to trial on 14 September 1803, for endeavouring to seduce a soldier from allegiance.
The soldier in question was John Hall, a corporal in the second regiment of the Tower Hamlets militia. Humphrey appears to have met Hall – a stranger – late one Saturday night in Spitalfields, in the summer of 1803 (the date was 23 July). Hall claimed that he had been walking home at around 11.30pm when Humphrey greeted him: "Where are you going, soldier?" Humphrey invited Hall to drink with him, and the pair retired to a nearby public house. Once inside, Hall testified that Humphrey "whispered to me; he caught hold of my hand, and said, he believed I was one after his own heart". After gaining the soldier’s assurance that he could be trusted, Humphrey invited Hall to join a secret club, of which he (Humphrey) was a member. Hall asked what kind of society it was. Having extracted another promise from Hall that he would not hurt him, Humphrey divulged that the society planned to assist Napoleon Bonaparte when he invaded Britain. It allegedly had 150 members, and Humphrey boasted of knowing many more similar clubs. It operated from a private house four or five minutes away. Hall was to meet him again on Monday at 7 o’clock.
At this point, Hall left the pub for the watch-house and alerted the constable, Thomas Ekleso. Ekleso brought both men back to the watch-house and questioned Humphrey. At trial, Ekleso testified that Humphrey had confirmed Hall’s story, saying, "yes, it was true".
In court, Humphrey was defended by a Mr Alley, who cross-examined both witnesses at some length. Hall’s cross-examination yielded perhaps the most persuasive results. Alley tried to discredit Hall’s story, suggesting it was improbable that Humphrey would share these confidences with a total stranger, and that it was strange nobody else in the pub had overheard the conversation.
Humphrey was found guilty and sentenced to death. The Newgate Prison Calendar records that he was held in Newgate to await execution. For some months his fate hung in the balance. He petitioned for mercy but there does not seem to have been an immediate outcome in his favour, for while other convicts from the same sessions were getting their sentences reduced, Humphrey remained under sentence of death.
Finally, on 2 February 1804, Humphrey was granted a conditional pardon. His sentence was reduced to transportation to New South Wales for the term of his natural life.
Then – and more surprisingly – on 13 August he was given a free pardon, "without any Condition whatever". We don’t know why it was decided to pardon Humphrey on either occasion: the warrants only refer, using the standard bureaucratic phrase, to "favorable circumstances humbly represented to us in his behalf".
Three days after the free pardon, on 16 August, Humphrey was entered in the account book of the Laurel convict hulk. Presumably, he had been taken there to await transportation in view of July’s conditional pardon, and it took a few days for news of the free pardon to arrive.
Humphrey left the Laurel on 21 August 1804. Puzzlingly, however, the Prison Hulks Registers record a Humphrey Crawley, born c.1765, as being received aboard the Laurel in March 1805. This is something of a mystery: it’s possible that Humphrey was recaptured for another offence, but if so, the records don’t survive.
We know very little about Humphrey’s life beyond the incident of July 1803. He was Irish and presumably living in London when the offence took place, telling the constable he lodged in St Giles’s.
It seems reasonable to assume that Humphrey was poor. The Laurel’s accounts record Humphrey as owning a jacket, breeches and shirt, but not stockings, hat, handkerchief, waistcoat, or shoes.
Humphrey disappears from the records after the puzzling entry in the Prison Hulks Registers of 1805.
Humphrey’s case illustrates the wider legal-political context of 1803 in several important ways.
Humphrey was convicted under the Incitement to Mutiny Act, which had been rushed through parliament after the naval mutinies of 1797. This legislation had made the seduction of servicemen from their duty a capital felony.
By the summer of 1803, Britain was once more at war with France. There were fears that groups of political radicals could mobilize to support a French invasion, so Hall’s allegations against Humphrey had serious implications. The summer of 1803 also saw the poet and artist William Blake prosecuted for seduction from allegiance, together with charges of seditious expressions and assault (of a soldier).
Finally, as an Irishman, Humphrey would have been seen as particularly suspect. The Irish Rebellions of 1798 and 1803 were fresh in people’s memories. (Coincidentally, the 1803 uprising had taken place on the very same night that Humphrey had met Hall in Spitalfields.) Moreover, the Incitement to Mutiny Act – under which Humphrey was convicted – had been part of a swift legislative response to the naval mutinies of 1797, which, in turn, were feared to be linked a wider revolutionary effort by the United Irishmen, London Corresponding Society, and others. No connection was actually suggested between Humphrey and the United Irishmen, in his trial. But Ekleso repeatedly referred to Humphrey as "the Irishman", and Hall saw proper to tell the court he had volunteered to serve "in Ireland the last rebellion". Humphrey’s defence counsel must have considered there to be a risk of association, for he asked Ekleso in his cross-examination: "It has been said this man is an Irishman – is he or not?" Ekleso replied, "He says he is".
Under such pressured conditions (naval mutinies, Irish rebellion, fear of French invasion), soldiers and servicemen were thought to need the law’s particular protection against radical interference.
Seducing from allegiance, hulk, pardon, petitioning
This page was written by Fiona Milne with additional contributions by other members of the Digital Panopticon project team.