Drink, Highway Robbery, and Escape from the Debtors’ Prison – Insolvent Lives: Burton Brace (1713-36)

In this edition of my occasional series producing biographies of debtors to explore what led them into debtors’ prison we’re examining the short life of Burton Brace, a drawer (a tavern wine waiter) who drank more than he served. While the majority trod a path to the debtors’ prison beset with bad luck, business errors, or calamities out of their control, occasionally a figure like Burton appears in the records who had no one but themselves to blame for their misfortune. 

Daniel Brace was a successful though by no means wealthy middling sort vendor, a man who through years of diligent labour provided the possibility of a better life for his son. Following the death of his father, Daniel left the small village of Upper Stondon in Bedfordshire and was sent to London in the 1670s to be apprenticed to the Worshipful Company of Vintners. By 1684 he had opened a coffeehouse in Bread Street in Cheapside, now something of a backstreet but then at the heart of the hustle and bustle of the capital’s commercial centre.[1] Marriage and family followed and his son Burton Brace was born within the walls of the City of London in January 1713.[2] As Daniel settled into middle age, the family moved out of the crowds of central London into the quieter suburb of Walworth on the south side of the Thames where he opened an alehouse. While they hardly constituted the pinnacle of the social ladder, the Braces enjoyed some level of refinement and local status as the owners of an important institution of sociability. Daniel had certainly done well enough to style himself as a ‘gentleman’ by 1720 and Burton received a ‘good Education at School, in Reading, Writing, Arithmetick, … and instructed … in the Christian Religion’, perhaps being intended for better things.[3] However, in 1723 Daniel, like his father, died before his son had reached maturity and five years later Burton was apprenticed to John Goostrey of the Vintner’s Company, owner of The Devil tavern in London.[4]

Despite hoping for a more genteel and untroubled life, the young Burton took to his training and work with enthusiasm and diligence. It was later said by a fellow apprentice at The Devil that whilst in his service ‘Mr. Goosetry had not any Servant of whom he had a better Opinion than’ of Burton, others noting ‘he always bore a good Character’ in that time and that he ‘behaved extreamly well in that Service’.[5] This changed when he came of age in 1734, completing his apprenticeship and coming into an inheritance consisting of ‘the Ship Alehouse and three other Houses in Walworth’ worth around £200 or roughly £30,000 in today’s money. This was an inheritance of which any budding tradesman would have been jealous, offering Burton the chance to set up independently without having to pay rent either on his domestic or commercial property. However, while its cash value was not substantial nor worth dissolving the estate for, it was a tempting sum for a young man without guidance or responsibilities. 

Burton left The Devil and as ‘his Head was turned with the Notion of appearing like a modern fine Gentleman’ fell in with a rowdy leisured crowd of wealthy young men. This decision and pretentions of status were matched as steps on his path to debt by an apparent drinking problem. While it was later said he had been ruined by the ‘Company and Advice of bad Women’, Burton’s issues with alcohol were evident when he had still been at The Devil: ‘While he was apprentice, he was favoured by everybody, but contracted too much Acquaintance, and a Habit of Company-keeping with idle People’. Though it is far from explicit, this description certainly paints a picture of the young barman, happy to pour wine liberally to customers but also to himself.[6]

He promptly sold the estate and his life, as a later comment put it, lost its industry:

‘The Morning was consumed in Sleep, and the Afternoon was to him the Beginning of the Day, the Evening his Time of Business and the Place one of the two mighty Gaming Houses in the Neighbourhood of Covent-Garden; here he lost his Mony and his Wit, he heard nothing but Oaths, Imprecations, and a mixture of avaritious Wishes, and profligate Designs of Spending; here he learned to think Industry a mean Thing, and an honest Way of Living, somewhat unworthy of a great Spirit; here he saw the Effects of these Maxims: Fellows, who a few Years ago cleaned Shoes, now trading in their Way for Thousands; dress’d in every Respect like Men of Quality, and putting on many more Airs, than if they had been really such.’[7]

By the spring of 1735 his luck had run out and not just at the gaming table as he was arrested by Thomas Harrison to whom he owed £10 as well as by Benjamin Tapsell for another £15. Burton then threw the last of his money at acquiring a writ of habeas corpus to remove himself to the Fleet Prison on the 13th May, further revealing his need to be recognised as the son of a gentleman. The Fleet as a superior court prison held the better class of debtor rather than the unfortunate tradesmen of London’s many other gaols. Though this behaviour might appear foolish it was far from rare, one in seventeen London debtors removing themselves to the Fleet or King’s Bench prisons in the eighteenth century. As well as status these prisons offered more comfortable accommodation and additional freedoms, most notably (if they could pay the appropriate fees) access to an autonomous zone around the gaol where debtors lived essentially on day release. While debtors may have seen a benefit in these unnecessary expenses, creditors regularly grumbled about habeas corpus and commitment lengths at the Fleet were longer than the traditional gaols the prisoners had removed themselves from.[8]

If his transfer was not unusual, how Burton Brace’s experience of debtors’ prison ended certainly was, his escape being just one of twelve amongst the 3,866 prisoners committed to the Fleet between 1733 and 1748. There was much contemporary concern that corrupt keepers could be bribed to look the other way but in reality most prison administrators were keen to prevent prisoners absconding, not least because if escapees could not be recovered gaolers became liable for their debts. Escape was not just low at the Fleet but at all prisons with the exception of when gaols were broken open by members of the public. In the Gordon Riots of 1780 debtors fled in large numbers in part for their safety as the rioters set fire to the Fleet, though they did at least allow the prisoners time ‘until evening’ to ‘remove all [their] furniture’.[9] Even during riots not all debtors chose to run; in 1780 at Ludgate the debtors ‘secreted themselves in the Garret in the Keeper’s House’ to avoid being ‘turned [out] by the Rioters’.[10] Debtors were keen not to further tarnish their reputation with accusations of criminality and, as most could eventually pay their debts, saw no reason to attempt a risky flight even when the walls of the gaol tumbled around them. However, for the most desperate debtors whose reputations and finances were already shattered, the negative consequences of a breakout might fade when rated against the dangers of an unending stay in an overcrowded and dirty prison. After six years confinement and owing £2,512 for defrauding the excise, Henry Wilson ‘Escaped over the Prison Wall into an Empty House in Fleet Lane’ in 1746 while, in 1790, Francis Shanley dressed ‘in the habits of a woman’ and simply walked out the front gate.[11]

When and how Burton made it out of the Fleet is unclear, simply being recorded as ‘escaped and hanged’ in the margins of the prison records. In July his bill lengthened further as Lancelot Hall’s claim of £40 brought Brace’s full obligations to £65 – roughly a third of the inheritance he had squandered. He was still in prions on the 20th October when Tapsell upped his costs to a further £10, however, by the 2nd December Burton had evidently slipped his captors as he was waiting on the corner of Hemming’s Row at one o’clock in the morning with a loaded pistol under his arm. This had clearly not been a long-term plan when he escaped. He had recently listed as a Midshipman on an East India Company vessel, a decision which did not undermine his pretentions of status, offered him a chance to keep out of trouble, and might make his fortune. However, he had not sailed as planned on the 20th November – either he missed the ship’s departure, or it may simply have been delayed. Regardless, he had that evening listened to his “friend” James Watkins (another former drawer with a drinking problem) and his bold scheme to fund their evening’s entertainment.[12]

Peter Bardin – a minor actor of the London stage known at the time for his performances at fairs though he would later find success playing ‘comic eccentrics, beaux, fops, and gallants’ at David Garrick’s Drury Lane Theatre – was returning home by carriage from the theatre.[13] He was accompanying Elizabeth Vanbrackle home (whom Burton later alleged was ‘one of the Women of the Town’ (a prostitute)) when his coach abruptly stopped, the window was pulled open, and a shadowy figure thrust a pistol through it declaring ‘Your Money, Sir or by God you are a dead Man’. Bardin, noticing a second figure was holding his coach driver Thomas Alderson also at gunpoint, handed over the silver he had though his assailant who he could now see clearly in the oil lamp light (‘A Face, I well remembred I had seen a hundred times before, but in what place I could not recollect’) was not satisfied – ‘Damn ye, Sir, says he, more Money or I will shoot you through the Head’. Bardin turned over everything of worth he had and after also robbing Vanbrackle, the pair disappeared into the night.[14]

Brace and Watkins had been careful to establish an alibi. They had lingered in The Golden Lyon in Covent Garden drinking from early evening before heading to The King’s Arms at ten where they remained until midnight, finally appearing at The Rose Tavern in Bridges Street where they drank between three and four in the morning. Burton’s familiar face at these taverns was, however, to be his undoing and not least because he later could not find a witness for his presence between midnight and three. The next morning, Peter Bardin met with his friend Mr Taylor and told him the tale of his run in with highwaymen, one of whom had seemed strangely familiar. Bardin’s description of the man also proved familiar to Taylor who had been at both The Golden Lyon and The King’s Arms the night before. Taylor and Bardin descended upon The Golden Lyon where they found Burton drinking openly (having ‘very foolishly shewed some of the Things that he had taken’ to the assembled to pay for it). When accused he unsurprisingly denied his highway robbery, claiming the pair must have recognised him from his time as a drawer at which point Bardin – a frequent patron of The Devil – finally was able to place (and name) his assailant.

The first constable called was as drunk as Burton and proved no help. However, after a more sober one was found Brace was quickly dragged before Justice Mitford and the pistol was found upon his person. Meanwhile, James Watkins disappeared into the London crowd, never to be taken. Burton continued to deny his guilt throughout his trial, claiming rather weakly ‘The Prosecutor is a Player, and the lady is one of the Women of the Town. He’s Jealous that I should Rival him, and to prevent it, he has carried on this Prosecution’. Following his guilty verdict and the issuing of the death sentence, Burton fainted.[15] 

There was hope in the press that, given this was Burton’s first offence, his age, and his status that the sentence might be reduced to transportation.[16] However, by the morning of the 4th of February 1736 no reprieve had come and he was taken alongside Joseph Cole (a burglar) and Thomas Bulker (also convicted of highway robbery) into Newgate’s Chapel for a final service. Burton at first ‘wept bitterly’ though was soon ‘quiet and grave’ and ‘very devout and Serious at Prayers and Singing of Psalms’. At Burton’s own request, ‘most of “The Humble suit of a Sinner” was sung’ before they were taken to Tyburn where the three were hanged.

Burton Brace’s body was taken away ‘in a mourning coach’ by his friends, a stark contrast to the common men executed alongside him. Bulker’s body was supposed to be ‘delivered to the Surgeons’ for dissection though ‘after a sharp Engagement’ it was seized and saved by ‘a Gang of Sailors’ Bulker ‘belonging to the sea’. Cole’s body was wrapped in a shroud and taken by the surgeons apparently without dissent.[17] At last, Burton Brace’s status raised him above his fellow men.

[1] London Gazette, 12th June 1684, no.1986.

[2] “Burton Brace”, Find My Past, England Births & Baptisms 1538-1975.

[3] Ordinary of Newgate Prison, Account of the Behaviour, Confessions, and Dying Words, Of the Malefactors, who were Executed at Tyburn, On Wednesday the 4th of February (1736), p.9. https://www.londonlives.org/browse.jsp?id=OA17360204_n37-1&div=OA173602043602040009

[4] “Burton Brace, son of Daniel, Walworth, Newington, Surrey, gentleman, deceased, to John Goostrey, 6 Nov 1728, Vintners’ Company”, London Apprenticeship Abstracts, 1442-1850; “Daniel Brace”, Find My Past, 1723, National Burial Index for England & Wales.

[5] “Trial of Burton Brace”, 10th December 1735, Old Bailey Proceedings Online, t17351210-24.

[6] Ordinary’s Account.

[7] Ordinary’s Account.

[8] Alexander Wakelam, Credit and Debt in Eighteenth-Century England: An Economic History of Debtors’ Prisons (Abingdon: Routledge, 2020), pp.58-62.

[9] Anon. The Remembrancer; or, Impartial Repository of Public Events for the Year 1780, Part Two (London: 1780), p.12.

[10] Journal of the House of Commons, Report for the Committee appointed to Enquire into the Practice and Effects of Imprisonment for Debt(1792), p.76.

[11] Wakelam, Credit and Debt, pp.107-108.

[12] “Trial of Burton Brace”; “Commitment Registers”, 1735-7, Fleet Prison, The National Archives, PRIS 1/6; London Evening Post, 4th – 6thDecember 1735, no.1256.

[13] Harry Pedicord and Frederick Bergman, The Plays of David Garrick Vol.II (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1980) p.365; Sybil Rosenfeld, The Theatre of the London Fairs in the 18th Century (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1960), pp.34-42.

[14] “Trial of Burton Brace”.

[15] “Trial of Burton Brace”; General Evening Post, 11th – 13th December 1735, no.344.

[16] General Evening Post, 13th – 16th December 1735, no.345; London Daily Post and General Advertiser, 18th December 1735, no.352.

[17] Ordinary’s AccountDaily Gazetteer, 5th February 1736, no.190; London Daily Post and General Advertiser, 5th February 1736, no.394.

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