William Rayner's Trial

On Wednesday, 25 October 1786, William Rayner was tried at the Justice Hall in the old Bailey, the court for the City of London, and the County of Middlesex:

No 770 WILLIAM DAVIS and WILLIAM RAYNER were indicted for feloniously assaulting Thomas Rutt on the King's Highway, on the 13th October, and putting him in corporal fear and danger of his life, and feloniously taking from his person and against his will, a metal watch with a tortoise shell case; value 30 shillings, a stone seal set in metal, value tuppence, a silk watch string, value a penny and four halfpence, value twopence, his property.

THOMAS RUTT sworn: I live with a relation that is a stock broker in Birchen Lane; I live in Britannia Row, in the lower street, Islington. I was robbed last Friday was se'ennight, about a quarter before seven at night, at the corner of the New River, going up the City road; as we were going up the road, two men came up to us and spoke softly to us, and said do not make a noise; then they went to take hold of Mrs Rutt's hand, and she gave a scream and got away, and went up towards Islington, crying murder as loud as she could, immediately they came to me, one collared me on the right hand, and the other on the left, when they said softly do not make a noise; then I told them not to use my wife ill, and I would give them all that I had, and directly I felt one of the men's hands take the watch out of my pocket; then they asked me for my money, and I said, I will tell you what, my friends, I am a reduced tradesman, and have got no money; oh yes you have says one; and put his hand into my breeches pocket, and took what I had, which was only two-pence, then they went away directly towards Colebrook-row and made off; it was a quarter before seven, it was a dark night, I could not see to distinguish them, and they made use of no oaths, nor they showed me no weapon. Then you know nothing of the persons of them that robbed you? No, my Lord, I could not swear to them; it was a dark night. and their hats were flapped, and I suppose from the time they attacked me to the time they went away was not three minutes.

MARY RUTT sworn: About a quarter before seven, a man came up to me and desired me to make no noise; he immediately put his hand on my hat, I was exceedingly frightened and ran away, and cried out murder; I knew nothing of the persons of the men.

JAMES SHAKESHAFT sworn: On Saturday, the 14th of October, in the morning, I was in company with Mr Armstrong in Bishopsgate Street; I had information in the morning that there had been some robberies committed in the roads, and Mr Armstrong and me saw the two prisoners standing in New Street, by Bishopsgate Street; we looked at them and they seemed very suspicious, one of them had boots on, and one of them had white stockings covered with country dust; I saw one of them with a watch string hanging out of his fob, one of them parted from the other; this went out into the middle of the road to see which way he went, and I had left him in a minute; Armstrong ran into Petticoat Lane, before he came back Rayner came out of pawnbroker's shop, and other then came and joined them; I followed them down Wormwood Street, they were discussing together; the shortest gave the watch to the tallest, then Armstrong came running after me, we took them into custody, we brought them to the office, and took them before the magistrate; Armstrong took Davis and took away the watch; I saw the string hanging out of his pocket; they told me where their lodgings were, we went and searched their lodgings, and this coat was upon the bed, and in the coat pocket was this knife (a broken case knife), and this stick was in the room (a stick that might be taken for a pistol); but when they were committed and going to goal, I believe Armstrong said, you have got a very bad knife in one of your pockets, we had like to have cut our hands; they answered aye, that is the knife we used to have on the roads, and there is a stick in the room, that is the pistol we used to have; says we, it is a wonder the patrols never got hold of you; they said the patrols could not have hurt them, for if they had come up they would have dinged the knife, and then they could not vagrant them; because your Lordship sees if they had pistols or cutlasses about them; they would have been vagrants; they said it was an old codger, that he had nothing but a flick with him, and they never pulled out the knife or stick on him; on the Monday they were brought up before the magistrate again, and the magistrate asked which of them had that knife, the prisoner Rayner said he had that knife when they robbed the gentleman; the tallest said he had the stick. COURT: They seem to have been very frank with you, what induced them to tell you all this? My Lord, they told it going down the road, there was o manner of promise made to them; Armstrong had taken the watch from Davis's pocket before this.

MR GARROW, Prisoner's Counsel: Did not the father of one of these men attend to the magistrates? - Yes, he did. He is a Quaker? - Yes. Upon your oath did not this Quaker father use a great deal of persuasion with these young men, and tell them it would be much better for them? - He, upon my oath, he did not, I am sure of it; I heard him say to his son "you have done this and must abide by the consequences of the law". Had not someone used such persuasions? No Sir I swear they had not. Had not the father of Rayner conversation with him before this? - He talked to him, but there was nothing of this sort mentioned.

ARMSTRONG sworn: I know nothing of the robbery, I was with Shakeshaft. Tell us what you first saw? - The first seeing of them was at the corner of New Street, both in company together, and Shakeshaft giving the information; he is a jailer belonging to the new prison; seeing one of them in boots and the garb not being so decent for boots, I suspected them, one of them separated and stood looking at the other; Shakeshaft said he had missed the other, I went after him, and took Davis in Petticoat Lane, and Shakeshaft took Rayner, I saw Davis coming out of the pawnbrokers, I asked Davis what he had been pawning, he said nothing, I took the watch out of his pocket, says he it is mine, says I , where did you get it, he said, he was a midshipman on board the Southhampton frigate, and he had it before he left that ship; I then asked him the number; he differed in the number, and I told him I suspected he did not come honestly by it; he said he had and he would tell me where it had been left so long, I said if he did I would not keep him long, but I would go and see it was so; then he replied, he would not have me go nigh his friends on any account whatever; Mr Harper was in the room when I took this watch from him. I took him to the magistrate and searched him further there, and in his waistcoat pocket I found this seal; then we asked them where they lived, and we received this answer, in Vine Street, St Martin's Lane, I asked him with whom, he gave me the landlord's name, and Davis gave me a key out of his pocket; I went to the landlady to know which was their room; at first she did not know them, I shewed her the key, she knew that; we opened the door, and on the bed was this coat, in putting my hand into the pocket I run it against the knife, we then returned to the office, and in that time the prisoner Rayner had sent for his father, and they were both committed to New Prison, I heard Rayner's father say to him, for the love of God whether it be good or bad tell me the truth, what he said to his father I cannot say, he persisted in knowing about it at that moment, his father desired then to see the magistrate, and the magistrate told him, in my hearing, they were committed, and he had nothing further to do with them; as we were going down to goal the little one said, it would have been very happy for us if I had been boned by myself with the watch, but two of us could not tell a story alike.

COURT: What is the meaning of boned? Apprehended; it is a cant word, they were conversing with one another about different things, but perhaps your Lordship will not think it proper for me to mention them; when they were brought up on Monday Mr & Mrs Rutt attended, and the Justice asked the prosecutor, which he thought was the man that robbed him, he said the tallest, and he said he was the man, and the little one said, he was the man that robbed the woman, without our speaking at all.

SAMUEL HARPER sworn: I was not at the apprehending of the prisoners; I saw the watch taken from the prisoner, and he said before my face he had it in his possession upward of two years.

PRISONER DAVIS'S DEFENCE: I leave it to my counsel. What is your way of life? - I am apprenticed to an enameller. How old are you? - I am going on nineteen. What is the name of the enameller? He is here my Lord.

WILLIAM BOWDLER sworn: I live in Brook Street, Holborn; the tall prisoner was my apprentice, his name is Andrew Thompson, he has been my apprentice these three years, he has four years to serve; I believe he may be about nineteen, the lad has been perfectly honest to me, as far as ever I know, he might have taken my gold watch which cost me twenty five guineas; he was honest and industrious, that has been his character down to this time; I did not in the least suspect he went after any of these kind of courses.

COURT: Was he regular in business? - Yes. Was he in business quite to the time he was apprehended? - He absented himself last Thursday was se'ennight, and I saw no more of him till this time.

COURT: Has he ever absented himself before till this Thursday? - He has gone out an afternoon or so without leave, but not very often. Did he board and lodge in the house with you? - Yes. I suppose he has formed some improper connections? - I am afraid so.

ANDREW THOMPSON sworn: I live at Kingsland, I am independt; I am the prisoner's uncle, he was honest and sober as far as I knew.

JAMES THOMPSON sworn: I live in Aldgate High Street; I am a tailor, I am not related to the prisoner, I have known his relations almost fifty years; he is a very good character for anything I have ever heard, my daughter lived with his uncle, and is very well acquainted with him, and I used to go and see him often.

WILLIAM KIRKPATRICK sworn: I am a tailor, No 7 Angel Street, St Martin's-le-Grand, I knew the prisoner from his infancy both in Scotland and this place, he was a very good lad, honest sober and industrious.

RICHARD CURTON sworn: I live in Cross Street, Hatten Garden, I am an enameller and watch maker, I have known him these three years, I always understood his general character to be a very good one, I have seen him at his business, and he has worked for me by consent of his Master; I took him to be a very valuable lad, and so much so, that had I known of any controversy or other dispute with his master I should have had no objection to take him to my house, and have given his master a valuable premium for him, I did not know till within a few hours of this fact.

PRISONER RAYNER'S DEFENCE: I leave it to my counsel.

JAMES THOMPSON sworn: I have known Rayner's father many years, I never heard anything disrespectful of them family before.

WILLIAM VALE sworn: I live in Shoreditch, I am a lacemaker, I have known him ever since he was born, which was at the next door to me; he was brought up in the Friendly Society School, and by them apprenticed out as a baker, where he had served part of his time; his master could not keep him on, and since that he has lived in the capacity of under journeyman in several places, and when he has been near my neighbourhood he has frequently been at my house daily for months together, and I never had any cause to suspect him; he is almost twenty ; he has always behaved himself sober honest and quiet, and free from company; I used to trust him in my house, the same as my own son, the last twelvemonths I do not know so much of him, Mr Goodman is a baker, with whom this young man lived some months, and I believe with an unblemished character, Mr Goodman is busy and could not come.

MARY EVETT sworn: I live near Whitechapel, I am a single woman, I have known him fifteen years ever since he was a child, he has been brought up in our honest religious society, and has been a sober youth, till very lately he has given himself into the love of pleasure; he had an undeniable character.


They were humbly recommended to mercy by the Prosecutor and Jury, on account of their youth. Tried by the second Middlesex Jury before Mr Baron Eyre.1

William Rayners Trial Proceedings (In Part)
William Rayners Trial Proceedings (In Part)
Image Reproduced Courtesy of The Old Bailey Online

Despite the efforts of his father's Quaker friends, and the fact that he could afford a Defence Counsel, (which only a minority of prisoners did), Rayner was condemned to death, and this was commuted to transportation for life. His employer lodged a plea for mitigation of his sentence in 1786, offering to take him back, and Mr Akerman, the Keeper of Newgate Goal, gave him a good character reference, but no action was taken. With his compatriot in crime, William Davis, after three years in Newgate Prison under a temporary respite from hanging, William was called to the bar of the Old Bailey in September 1789, part of a group of 100 capital convicts who were offered a pardon on condition of transportation for life:

William Rayner set to the Bar. Will you accept the king's pardon, on condition of transportation for life ? - Yes; and I humbly request my sentence may be put in force; and that I may not be made a slave in a free country.2

Davis, on the other hand was one of eight prisoners who caused a sensation by refusing to accept the reprieve, preferring execution to transportation to Botany Bay.

William Davis on the same condition, which he refusing, the Court addressed him as follows:

Prisoner at the bar, I think it my duty to state to you the very perilous situation in which you now stand; you have been convicted of an offence, for which, by the laws of your country, you have forfeited your life; but by the indulgence of a very kind sovereign, that life has been spared, to give you an opportunity of becoming a better man, in a different situation. I will, for one moment, throw aside the character of the Judge, for the Judge should, in his private capacity, be a friend to the unfortunate; at present, I address you, therefore, not as a Judge, but as a friend to an unfortunate man; and recommend it to you most sincerely, not to throw away that life which you have now an opportunity of saving. Having given you that advice as a friend to a man in a most lamenable situation, I shall now resume the character of the Judge; and tell you, that the administration of the justice of this country will not be sported with by men of your description; and if you do not accept the terms of the king's pardon, I shall order you for immediate execution; having given you this fair notice, I leave you to decide for yourself; but that decision must be made now, because you will not exist perhaps two days; perhaps not one, after your refusal.

(The question asked.)

Prisoner. Death is more welcome to me than this pardon.

Will you accept it? - I will not.

Court. Take him back to the condemned cells, and I shall sign a warrant of execution, as soon as I settle with the sheriffs, to prepare for that purpose.3

After counselling from Mr Villette, the prison chaplain, five of the eight accepted their new sentence, but Davis and two others remained obdurate. They were saved from execution because the Recorder of London raised doubts over the appropriateness of executing a prisoner at his own wish. They all later relented, were reprieved, and Davis was sent to the Scarborough with Rayner on 10 November 1789.4