Blueskin and Honest Jack | Notorious Local Highwaymen Series

Blueskin and Honest Jack (1700-1725)

(Monarch: George II)

Jack Sheppard & Blueskin / Credit: Cruikshank for ‘Jack Sheppard: A Romance’ by William Harrison Ainsworth, 1839
Jack Sheppard & Blueskin / Credit: Cruikshank for ‘Jack Sheppard: A Romance’ by William Harrison Ainsworth, 1839

The link between these two notorious scoundrels and Blackheath is a little tenuous, but it does exist, and this is a story that’s too much fun to overlook for it involves corruption, prison breaks, betrayal, and celebrity status.


Blueskin (aka Joseph Blake)


Born in 1700, Blueskin’s parents had the means to educate him at the parish school of St Giles-without-Cripplegate.


The colour of Joseph’s skin obviously wasn’t blue, and there is little documented evidence as to why he was given such a nickname. The most logical explanation comes from the Newgate Calendar records, which mentions he was of swarthy complexion.[1]


Despite his education, Blueskin entered a career of pickpocketing and housebreaking – mixing with a local gang that was quickly caught and hung at Tyburn. Yet somehow, Blueskin evaded conviction. This probably had something to do with who he knew and not what he had done because while he was still at school, William Blewitt, his friend, introduced him to Jonathan Wild – a man working both sides of the law.


Wild was a Thief-Taker General: someone hired by victims to capture the criminals – a bit like a modern-day private detective. The problem, however, was that Wild wasn’t a straight-up good citizen of London as his title suggests and he had his fingers in both sides of the criminal pie – charging protection money from the thieves he sought to catch while claiming the reward for the booty they stole.


He became a powerful gang leader and master manipulator of the legal system, working it to his advantage. Irritating Wild could ruin any successful but lawless career.

Johnathon Wild / Credit: Charles Knight
Johnathon Wild / Credit: Charles Knight

At seventeen, Blueskin joined Wild’s gang, and his criminal career was sealed as a footpad (a highwayman operating on foot rather than riding a horse), thief and a highwayman.


So far, Blueskin’s criminal career is pretty average, but then he becomes friends with a young lad called Jack Sheppard (aka Honest Jack). Jack was more of a good old traditional thief than a highwayman, but occasionally, he ran with Blueskin and his gang, who turned their robbing attentions to Blackheath, which had a reputation for[2]:


Great booties that were to be made

Thinking they were going to come away with a large stash of spoils from our area, the gang


Set out, being six horsemen well-armed and mounted; but after having continued about six hours upon the Heath, and not meeting so much as one person, and the same ill luck being three or four times repeated, they left off going on that road for the future.[3]

So, not quite the great booty they wanted, and they got nothing from the Blackheathens – hurrah. This was the last recorded attempt at the gang trying to hit the local area.


Blueskin 'deserves to be remembered as one who thought wickedness the greatest achievement, and studiously took the paths of infamy in order to become famous.'[4]


In theory, the story should stop here, but Jack Sheppard is worthy of five more minutes of our time.


Jack Sheppard (aka Honest Jack)

Jack Sheppard / Credit:  English School / Look and Learn / Bridgeman Images
Jack Sheppard / Credit: English School / Look and Learn / Bridgeman Images

Unlike Blueskin’s family, Jack’s was poor. His father died when he was still quite young, so, with good intention, Jack embarked on an apprenticeship as a carpenter (his father’s trade).


Without her husband’s income, Ma Sheppard struggled to cope, and Jack stayed on the straight and narrow for six years, trying to help where he could. But with just one year left of his apprenticeship, Jack met a woman called Edgworth Bess in the Black Lion Inn.


In his own words, Jack states that it was Bess who led him into a life of crime.[5]

Jack Sheppard / Credit: George Cruikshank / Look and Learn / Bridgeman Images
Jack Sheppard / Credit: George Cruikshank / Look and Learn / Bridgeman Images

With his newly discovered love of the hedonistic lifestyle, Jack found his way into Jonathan Wild’s gang (the corrupt thief-taker) and became good friends with Blueskin (for a time). So, Honest Jack’s life of crime had begun! He worked as a footpad, pickpocket, house breaker and highwayman. But the one thing Jack never did, was hurt anyone or shoot a gun.


His flare for criminal creativity didn’t go unnoticed by Wild – Jack was good, and Jack was creative. But Jack was also pretty adept at getting caught too! In fact, he was caught five times throughout his short career, which meant he had to be good at something else – escaping!


Arrest and escape one


Jack and his brother Tom committed a burglary together, accompanied by Edgworth Bess, with whom Jack was now living with or possibly even married to. Tom had been convicted once before so, in fear of execution, squealed on his brother, Jack. Nice.


Arrested and questioned, Jack was thrown into the top floor of St Giles’s Roundhouse, a small holding prison. But little did anyone know at this time that the small wooden prison couldn’t hold one of the best escape artists of the century.


Jack broke through the timber-framed ceiling, climbed out onto the roof, and lowered himself down with a rope made from his bedclothes. Then, even though he still had his chains on, he merged into the crowd, looking up at commotion now on the roof, and joined in with the excitement before scarpering.

Jack Sheppard – The first prison break / Credit: George Cruikshank 1839 / The Victorian Web
Jack Sheppard – The first prison break / Credit: George Cruikshank 1839 / The Victorian Web

Arrest and escape two


Caught in the act of pickpocketing (although Jack denied his involvement), he was next detained at St Ann’s Roundhouse in Soho, where good old Edgworth Bess visited him. Believing Bess to be Jack’s wife, the guards threw her into the cell with him, and they were moved to New Prison in Clerkenwell.


Together, they filed through their chains with implements Bess had brought in under her petticoats. They managed to remove a bar on the window and slide out using the bedsheets as ropes again. They then hurdled a twenty-two-foot-high prison gate and wandered off into the night.

Jack Sheppard – The second prison break / Credit: George Cruikshank 1839 / Victorian Web
Jack Sheppard – The second prison break / Credit: George Cruikshank 1839 / Victorian Web

Arrest and escape three


The Thief-Taker, Wild, wanted a cut of Jack’s ill-gotten gains because he was so good at thieving, but Jack resisted. Wild didn’t take kindly to this, especially as he owned the criminal gangs in London, so he spilt the beans on Jack, getting him arrested – again.


Wild was able to do this because of Blueskin and Edgworth Bess.

  • Blueskin (already known as a grass after giving testimony at the Old Bailey, which led to his associates being introduced to the fatal Tyburn Tree), told Wild what jobs Jack had been up to and gave him all the details.

  • Edgworth Bess was plied with copious amounts of booze by Wild and once in a loose-tongued condition, let slip where Jack was hiding out.

Wild, irked by Jack’s independence and success, grassed him up.


This time, Honest Jack was put into Newgate Prison under the belief that no one could ever escape from it, not even him. But Jack was now the infamous escapee making headlines in national newspapers while the public romanticised his crimes as if they were anti-establishment heroics.


And the thing is, Jack did escape! He loosened a bar in the door where he was allowed to talk to visitors, and with the help of Bess and her friend, Poll Maggot (not a typo), he changed into a dress and walked right out of prison with them, in front of all the guards.


Jack now had a death warrant on his head.

Jack and Bess Actioning the Escape / Credit:  Jack Sheppard, A Romance by W. Harrison Ainsworth 1839
Jack and Bess Actioning the Escape / Credit: Jack Sheppard, A Romance by W. Harrison Ainsworth 1839

Arrest and escape four


At this time, after his last escape, Jack became an even bigger hero amongst the poor. A non-violent and clever escapee fighting against incarceration – apparently handsome as well.


Hiding out in Finchley Common, he was finally caught again by the Newgate Posse and thrown back into Newgate, only this time, he was put in the ‘Castle’ and chained to the middle of the floor so he couldn’t move. Oh, how the prison guards got it wrong, again, because Jack used a nail from his chair to unlock his handcuffs and chains.


He broke through the ceiling and then six barred doors that took him into the prison chapel. Then, with access to the roof of the prison from the chapel, Jack broke through again; only he released there was a sixty-feet drop he hadn't accounted for. So, he went all the way back to his cell and grabbed the faithful prison blanket (aka escape rope), then travelled all the way back through the six barred doors, to the chapel and up onto the roof, again. Lowering himself down, Jack landed on the roof of an adjoining house, which he broke into it without waking the occupants, exited, and merrily walked down the streets of London to freedom.

Jack Sheppard – Fourth prison break / Credit: George Cruikshank 1839 / Victorian Web
Jack Sheppard – Fourth prison break / Credit: George Cruikshank 1839 / Victorian Web

Arrest five


Jack was free for just another two weeks, and like most villains of his time, was arrested while drunk and napping after a night of too much ale, and in Jack’s case, two mistresses – neither of which were Edgworth Bess or Poll Maggot.


His last criminal act was to break into a pawnbroker to steal a dashing black suit, a silver sword and some jewellery. When arrested, he was drunk in charge of


A handsome Suit of Black, with a Diamond Ring and a carnelian ring on his finger, and a fine Light Tye Peruke. [6]

Jack was placed in the Middle Stone Room at Newgate with a twenty-four-hour watch (finally, they got it) and a three-hundred-pound weight iron chain shackling him to the floor. Prison guards made a fortune from charging four shillings for the public to take a look at the famous Honest Jack, finally captured and sentenced to death.


Jack had become so famous that Sir James Thornhill painted his portrait while in prison, and Daniel Defoe ghost-wrote Jack’s autobiographical narrative of his life.

Jack in Newgate having portraits taken by Sir James Thornhill & William Hogarth by Cruikshank, 1839
Jack in Newgate having portraits taken by Sir James Thornhill & William Hogarth by Cruikshank, 1839

The Tyburn Tree Trio


Blueskin


In October 1724, Wild and his men arrested Blueskin for burglary. At this point, Wild was losing control of his criminal gang and was pretty irked that Blueskin was still working with Honest Jack. By removing his usual protection, Wild had sentenced Blueskin to death.


Despite Blueskin’s pleas for transportation rather than execution, Wild refused. With a small pocket knife in his hand, Blueskin attacked Wild and slashed his throat outside the courtroom. His attempt to kill Wild failed, as did his attempt to escape Newgate like his friend, Jack.


On 11th November 1724, Blueskin was executed at Tyburn.


Honest Jack


As we know, Jack was arrested by the Newgate Posse wearing a fine black suit after robbing a pawnbroker.


But Jack had a plan. On his walk to the Tyburn Tree, with his faithful penknife in his pocket, he planned to cut through the ropes that bound him. Sadly, the guards were a bit more astute than they had been before, and Jack’s plan was foiled when they found the knife in his possession.


So, Jack’s cart was drawn along what we know as Holborn and Oxford Street. Over 200,000 Londoners came out to watch, which was one-third of London’s population. So celebrated was Jack and his antics that the atmosphere was described as 'like a carnival.'

There was one last attempt to free Jack as he swung from the gallows. His friends, with Edgworth Bess, devised a plan based on their knowledge of hanging. Now, if you are a bit squeamish, look away.

Jack Sheppard’s Hanging / Credit: George Cruikshank for William Ainsworth’s book
Jack Sheppard’s Hanging / Credit: George Cruikshank for William Ainsworth’s book

Hanging back in those days was just that. There was no quick and sharp drop that snapped the neck. Instead, it was a slow, drawn-out, and painful death. The heavier a person was, the quicker they would die. For once, being podgy and rotund had an advantage! Jack was, however, small-framed. This helped in his escapes, but meant that his death was going to be long and slow.


After the prescribed fifteen minutes of hanging, Honest Jack's body was cut down. His friends planned to steal him away and rush him to a doctor to revive him, but the trouble was, no one had accounted for the 200,000 fans and their rush forward to protect Jack’s body from possibly being dissected. This created an impossible escape route, and Jack Sheppard died a rather unpleasant death – trampled on by his adoring fans trying to protect him. In some ways, what killed Jack was his fame.


On 16th November 1724, Jack Sheppard was executed and buried in the churchyard of St Martin-in-the-Fields.


Jonathan Wild


Having his fingers in too many pies was never going to end well, especially for someone as mean and rotten as Jonathan Wild. Once Jack Sheppard had been executed, and while recovering from the penknife attack of Blueskin, Wild’s reputation worsened. He lost control of his gangs, and those within them started to despise him for what he had done.


In an attempt to rebuild some trust, Wild tried to help one of his gang members to break out of jail but was caught. Where is Honest Jack when you need him?


On February 15th, 1725, Wild was arrested. His final trial (for all manner of offences) was in May, where he was sentenced to death. On hearing this news, Wild attempted suicide but failed because, due to his declining mental health, he hadn’t been able to eat, and when he drank the laudanum (liquid opium), he vomited it all back up.


Tickets were sold to see Wild die. The crowd wasn’t anywhere near as huge as it had been for Honest Jack, and instead of celebrations for his life, there was a celebration for his death.


On 24th May 1725, Wild was executed.


Under the cloak of darkness, Wild’s body was buried at the churchyard of St Pancras Old Church next to his third wife. In the 18th century, when autopsies and dissections were made on the most notorious criminals, his body was exhumed and sold to the Royal College of Surgeons for dissection. You can find his skeletal remains on display in the Royal College’s Hunterian Museum in Lincoln’s Inn Fields.


What happened to Edgworth Bess?


Bess seemed to have some kind of hold over men.


In March 1725, she was committed to the Westminster house of correction in Tothill Fields for seducing a shopkeeper’s son to go a thieving with her.’[7]


In the following summer, she was living with a young painter named James Little. It’s said that Bess’ hurried him headlong to his destruction’ even though he was already a criminal before they met.


There are quite a few records from the Old Bailey archives for a lady called Elizabeth Lyon (Bess’s real name). However, there is only one that mentions both Sheppard and Edgworth Bess (March 1726).

Elizabeth Lyon, alias Sheppard, alias Edgworth Bess, (Relict, of the memorable Jack Sheppard ) was indicted for breaking and entering the House of Edward Bury and stealing 6 Silver Spoons, a pair of Silver Tongs, a Silver Strainer, a Gown, and a Handkerchief, on the 31st of January, in the Night.

The result of this conviction was transportation for seven years. On 1st October 1726, Edgworth Bess landed in Maryland, embarking from the Loyal Margaret.[8] Beyond this, the rest is unknown.


The story of Blueskin, Honest Jack, Edgworth Bess, and Wild ends here, but they live on through the books, paintings, plays, and legends made based on the extraordinary real-life twists and turns of their criminal careers and betrayals. And at some time in their history, their stories entwined with Blackheath, even if a little tenuously.

 

Coming next, Henry Simms (Gentleman Harry).


If you’d like to get in touch about anything you’ve read or have more information you’d like to share, please contact Julie at blackheathandgreenwichhistory@gmail.com. I’d love to hear from you. If you’d like to subscribe to keep updated, scroll to the footer and sign up.


The website is still a work in progress as everything is checked against the primary sources (as far as possible) rather than relying on Google, so thank you for sticking with me.

 

Footnotes

  1. https://www.exclassics.com/newgate/ng172.htm

  2. Lives of the Most Remarkable Criminals, Who Have Been Condemned and Executed for Murder, Highway Robberies, Housebreaking, Street Robberies, Coining, or Other Offences; from the Year 1720 to the Year 1735. Collected from Original Papers and Authentic Memoirs. England: Reeves and Turner, 1874, 1874.

  3. ibid

  4. ibid

  5. Sheppard, Jack. Eighteenth-Century Collections Online. 5th ed. London: Printed and Sold by John Applebee, a Little below Bridewell-Bridge, in Black-Fryers, 1724.

  6. The London Journal, 7 November 1724. Mullan, p.186.

  7. Parker’s London News, 31 March 1725

  8. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford UP, 2018.

Sources

  • The Proceedings of the Old Bailey: https://www.oldbaileyonline.org/index.jsp

  • The Ex-Classics Website: https://www.exclassics.com

  • Lives of the Most Remarkable Criminals, Who Have Been Condemned and Executed for Murder, Highway Robberies, Housebreaking, Street Robberies, Coining, or Other Offences; from the Year 1720 to the Year 1735. Collected from Original Papers and Authentic Memoirs. England: Reeves and Turner, 1874, 1874.

  • Whitehead, Charles. Lives and Exploits of English Highwaymen, Pirates, and Robbers: Drawn from the Most Authentic Sources, by Capt. Charles Johnson. England: H. G. Bohn, 1842, 1842.

  • Sheppard, J., Defoe, D., Ellis, S. Marsh., Bleackley, H., Great Britain. Central Criminal Court. (1933). Jack Sheppard. Edinburgh: W. Hodge.

  • Sheppard, Jack. Eighteenth-Century Collections Online. 5th ed. London: Printed and Sold by John Applebee, a Little below Bridewell-Bridge, in Black-Fryers, 1724.

  • Daniel Defoe, ‘The History of the Remarkable Life of John Sheppard’ in Defoe on Sheppard and Wild Ed. Richard Holmes (London: Harper, 2004),

  • Charles Johnson, Lives of the Most Remarkable Criminals Ed. Arthur Heyward (London: Routledge, 1927)

  • The Proceedings of the Old Bailey