Edward Vidler was a young man making his way in the world, helping his parents to run a business in London. However, that business provided him with the opportunity to commit a fraud which would ultimately lead him into a hulk, to a prison, and to his death. He pursued a brief life of crime, appearing twice at the Old Bailey. He would never have the chance to reform as he died shortly after being sentenced for his second conviction for fraud.
Edward Vidler was born on 30th August 1820 close to Newgate Prison, an institution that would one day be his temporary home. Edward’s parents, John and Rachel Mary Vidler, were coal merchants in London and Edward acted as clerk for their business activities. In the prison records he is described as being able to read and write well, and as ‘very intelligent’, suggesting he enjoyed some level of formal education. In his early 20s, Edward moved out of home and into the city mile of London. He prospered, until he fell foul of business practices, and found himself prosecuted for fraud in 1848.
Edward’s Old Bailey trial transcript is brief. However, because Edward was convicted of a substantial fraud, forging a document ordering £350 of goods, this ensured a hefty sentence. He was sentenced to penal servitude for ten years in June 1848.
He was deposited in the hulk, Defence, moored in the River Thames. At various points, the Defence was used as a secure convict invalid depot, and it kept Edward during a period of ill health after conviction until he was well enough to be transferred to the hulk, “Stirling Castle”. Like many others sentenced in the 1850s, although sentenced to be transported to Australia, he never actually embarked on the journey. He served his sentence entirely on the hulks, until released on one of the first tickets-of-leaves issued in the United Kingdom in 1853. Edward had almost half of his sentence remitted, nearly five years, with the condition that he did not consort with thieves and prostitutes, and, of course, did not commit any further offences. However, Edward did not stay out of trouble for long. Within six months of his release he committed a similar offence to his 1848 conviction. On 12th June 1854 he was again indicted at the Old Bailey and convicted of forging a cheque purporting to have been legitimately signed by Lieutenant Colonel Jebb of the Royal Engineers. He received another decade of penal servitude as punishment, as well as being liable to finish serving his original sentence. It appears that Edward wanted to be transported to Van Diemen’s Land. He pleaded with the magistrate who committed him to the Old Bailey from Mansion House Sessions House that, this time, he should be sent their straight away rather than spending more time on the hulks, stating ‘I wish you would commit me at once for trial. I wish to go abroad as soon as possible’.
Edward Vidler never did make it to Australia. He did not even make it to a hulk. He died very shortly after being sentenced, aged 34, and was buried in Westminster in the autumn of 1854. We do not know why he died, although his 1848 prison records say he was already then suffering from a ‘debility’. It is possible he was already prone to illness, and that five years on the hulks, and imprisonment, saw him further deteriorate.
The victim of Edward’s second fraud, Joshua Jebb, held an army rank in 1854, but he is much more well-known now as the first Director of Convict Prisons. Appointed in 1850 he held the post for over a decade, during which time he oversaw the decline of mass Australian convict transportation, and the growth of the British-based convict penal estate. Partly the decline in transportation to Australia was economic, and partly it was due to increasing comment in Australia and the UK that transportation afforded convicted men and women advantages that they did not have in Britain. Even if stories of Australian convicts making their fortunes were untrue or vastly exaggerated, they could persuade some defendants to request the very punishment the State was intent on giving them. In Edward’s case, it is likely that he desired a swift transport, not in order to make his fortune, but to avoid the unhealthy conditions, and vicious discipline of the British hulks.
● Johnston, Helen, Crime in England 1815-1880: Experiencing the Criminal Justice System (Abingdon, 2015).
● Branch-Johnson, William, The English Prison Hulks (Johston, 1957 reprinted 1970).
● Garneray, Ambrose., The Floating Prison: An Account of Nine Years on a Prison Hulk During the Napoleonic Wars (Conway Maritime Press, 2015)
● Robb, George., White-Collar Crime in Modern England: Financial Fraud and Business Morality, 1845-1929 (Cambridge University Press, 2002)
● Finnane, Mark., Punishment in Australian Society (Oxford University Press Australia, 1998)
Hulks, fraud, forgery, death
This page was written by Barry Godfrey with additional contributions by other members of the Digital Panopticon project team.