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Seventeen Twenty-Four by Nigel Roth



If you met Gentleman Jack, on a dark November evening in London, in a dead-end lane, with no one around to come to your aid, you might be worried about being able to escape with your valise, let alone your watch and cane.


But if you heard behind Jack the quickening steps of the Thief-Taker General, you might be instantly buoyed by his imminent arrival, and hopeful that your purse would remain not only intact, but with you.


However, eighteenth century London is full of surprises.


We begin with William III, who has four more days to lie dying in his royal bed, not recovering from falling from his horse, before his sister-in-law Anne Stuart, Princess of Denmark, takes the reins to become Queen Anne of England, and we only have seven days to wait for the first ever British daily newspaper, the Daily Courant, created and edited by Elizabeth Mallet, to report this news to Londoners.


Gentleman Jack, the man about to rob you of your precious groats, was born John ‘Jack’ Sheppard, and who was, you’d be glad to know, more notorious for escaping captivity than for committing crimes, so much so that Daniel Foe (he added a De for a bit of class) ghost-wrote his autobiography, and George Cruickshank drew his wicked countenance.


Shepherd’s brief life of crime and even briefer demise began with buttons, the garment fasteners not my mother’s long-dead cat.


After leaving the workhouse, where he’d been placed to alleviate the constant state of penury his mother found herself in after her husband had died of teeth, Sheppard was apprenticed to a cane-chair maker, then put to work as the wool draper William Kneebone’s shop-boy, and finally began a career as a carpenter, which was the trade his father had excelled at and which, on reflection, might have been the first thought of the workhouse’s careers advice officer, had they had one.


The first five years of his apprenticeship was a dream, with Sheppard becoming quite adept at carpenting, until one evening, after a long day of dovetails, aprons, block-glueing, and loper-inserting, he joined a local man named Joseph Blake, known as Blueskin for his port-wine birthmark, for a pint of stout porter, a bowl of jellied eels, the sudden and intense affections of a prostitute called Edgeworth Bess, and a life of crime.


Or, about six months of crime, to be more accurate.


Blueskin had already made a name for himself by being a highwayman, alongside his comrade James Carrick, and in the London street gang commanded by Robert Wilkinson, and had escaped the gallows on several occasions, mostly by turning King’s evidence against his fellow criminals, like John Levee, Richard Oakey, and Matthew Flood, all of whom were hanged to the inevitable cheers of the morbid crowds.


On being released from another stint in prison in 1724, Blueskin bumped into Sheppard at the infamous Black Lion, and a partnership was born.


Meanwhile, your rescuer in that dark alley, the Thief-Taker general, is actually Jonathan Wild, born twenty years before Gentleman Jack, in Wolverhampton, and a man who fought crime before the police were even thought of, or created, one-hundred-and-twenty-seven years later.