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date: 30 June 2022

Hitchen, Charlesfree

(c. 1675–1727?)

Hitchen, Charlesfree

(c. 1675–1727?)
  • J. M. Beattie

Hitchen, Charles (c. 1675–1727?), thief-taker and marshal of the City of London, is of unknown parentage and background. He was apprenticed as a cabinet-maker and practised that trade for some years. In 1703 he married Elizabeth, the daughter of John Wells of King's Walden, Hertfordshire, and they subsequently came to live in a house on the north side of St Paul's Churchyard in the City of London. Hitchen was fortunate in his marriage, for Elizabeth inherited property from her father when he died in 1711 and that property (which Hitchen persuaded his wife to sell) enabled him to purchase the office of under-marshal of the City for £700 in the following year (CLRO, repertories of the court of aldermen 116.60; journals of the common council, 57.207).

Hitchen wanted the office for a purpose. The two City marshals, with their small force of six men, carried out policing duties that centred principally on keeping the streets clear of vagrants, prostitutes, and illegal traders. Fees accruing for this and other work carried out at the behest of the lord mayor, as well as an annual salary and allowances of about £100, repaid the purchase price of the office over time. But Hitchen was clearly interested in the more corrupt possibilities that the authority of the marshal's office provided. Soon after assuming office he began to extort protection money from brothel- and tavern-keepers. But he particularly used his powers of arrest to threaten young pickpockets with prosecution, not to discourage them from thieving but to coerce them into bringing him the goods that they stole so that he could negotiate with their victims for the return of their belongings for a fee.

Thief-takers of this kind, acting as middlemen between thieves and their victims, were well known in Anne's reign; indeed, their activities may have been increasing then because of efforts made by parliament and the magistrates of the City to seek out and punish receivers of stolen goods. It was safer in those circumstances, and perhaps more profitable, for thieves to return the items they stole for a portion of their value. On the other side many of their victims were willing to pay to recover their goods—particularly merchants and tradesmen who lost pocketbooks and valuable commercial papers to pickpockets and other thieves. Hitchen may well have been involved in arranging such transactions before he invested his wife's money in the office of under-marshal. But he became more active with the authority of the office behind him. He openly bragged about controlling dozens of young pickpockets and sought out their victims to pressure them to use his services as a middleman. His tactics were so aggressive and crude, and so many respectable men in the City complained about him, that in September 1712—barely ten months after taking up the post—the court of aldermen investigated his activities, interviewed his accusers and several of the young pickpockets he had dealt with, and in June 1713 suspended him from office (CLRO, Misc MS 105.8; papers of the court of aldermen, 1712–13; repertories 117–18).

Hitchen survived as under-marshal. The aldermen were clearly reluctant to discharge him from an office that he had so recently purchased, fearing perhaps to devalue the post, since the City treasury benefited from a portion of the sale price. He was reinstated in April 1714 (CLRO, repertories, 118.219), in part because he claimed to be developing a plan to diminish crime in the City, and at that moment—in the months after the end of the War of the Spanish Succession and the demobilization of Marlborough's continental army, and the discharge of large numbers of sailors—violent street crime was a pressing issue for the government of the City. Hitchen's dealings as a middleman almost certainly continued but in the meantime he had inadvertently encouraged a powerful rival by engaging Jonathan Wild as his assistant during his suspension from office. They were soon to fall out when Wild—seizing the opportunities to profit from the increase in serious offences in the post-war years—set out to construct a more ambitious system of thief-taking than Hitchen had operated, a system that combined the return of stolen goods with the prosecution of street robbers and other offenders whose conviction brought handsome rewards. Their rivalry became public knowledge when Hitchen sought to enlarge his own reputation and win the support of the court of aldermen for his plan to eliminate crime by publishing in 1718 an attack on Wild as the ‘regulator’ of the criminal world—charging him with manipulating evidence to convict and hang minor offenders while protecting greater villains and profiting from the return of stolen valuables (C. Hitchen, A True Discovery of the Conduct of Receivers and Thief-Takers in and about the City of London). Wild replied with an account of his work as Hitchen's assistant and of the marshal's conniving at, and profiting from, the thefts carried out by numerous young pickpockets in the City. Even more damagingly, perhaps, he included evidence of Hitchen's homosexuality by telling how the marshal had taken him to a molly house, one of several such clubs for homosexual men established in London in the early decades of the eighteenth century (J. Wild, An Answer to a Late Insolent Libel, 1718, 30–31).

Hitchen made a feeble attempt to turn these charges aside by reissuing his condemnation of Wild, in a slightly enlarged version, under a new title (The Regulator, or, A Discovery of the Thieves, Thief-Takers and Locks, 1718), but he appears to have been very largely silenced by this exchange. He no doubt continued to profit corruptly from his office, but he only came to public attention again a decade later because of his alleged homosexuality, when he was caught up in a campaign conducted against 'sodomitical practices' by the Societies for the Reformation of Manners. Hitchen was tried at the Old Bailey in April 1727 for the capital offence of sodomy, and although acquitted of that charge he was convicted on a second indictment of attempted sodomy (Old Bailey sessions papers, April 1727, 5–6). He had been saved from the gallows but, along with a fine of £20 and six months' imprisonment, his sentence included an hour on the pillory—a frightening prospect for men convicted of homosexual offences, particularly in his case, for, as the newspapers revealed, he had particularly targeted young men. He was to be pilloried, it was reported, 'at Katherine-Street End in the Strand, near the Place where he made his vicious Attacks upon young Youths' (Parker's Penny Post, 26 April 1727). In the event he was badly mauled by the large crowd that came well prepared to torment him—pelted with missiles, stripped of his shirt and breeches, and 'cruelly beaten'. The under-sheriff took him down long before his appointed hour had passed (London Journal, 6 May 1727; Evening Post, 29 April–2 May 1727). He was taken back to Newgate prison to serve out his term. In September, as his six-month sentence was coming to an end, Hitchen was dismissed as under-marshal by the court of aldermen for his 'notorious and wicked practices' and—as though that would not be sufficient justification—for neglecting the duty of the office for the previous six months (CLRO, repertories 131.408, 421–2). He died shortly thereafter in poverty, leaving his long-suffering wife to petition the common council of the City for help; she was granted an annuity of £20 for her support (CLRO, journals 57, 207).

Sources

  • G. Howson, Thief-taker general: the rise and fall of Jonathan Wild (1970)
  • J. M. Beattie, Policing and punishment in London, 1660–1750: urban crime and the limits of terror (2001)
  • T. Wales, ‘Thief-takers and their clients in later Stuart London’, Londinopolis: essays in the culture and social history of early modern London, ed. P. Griffiths and M. R. S. Jenner (2000), 67–85
  • R. Norton, Mother Clap's molly house: the gay subculture in England, 1700–1830 (1992)
  • The proceedings on the king's commission of the peace [Old Bailey sessions papers]
  • CLRO, Misc. MS 105.8
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