A sordid tale of bigamy and attempted murder in Georgian London

On the 19th October 1739 Philip Blake, around 30 years of age and by trade a gardener, married Sarah Perkins at St Saviour’s Church in Southwark. The marriage lasted little more than two or three years before the couple parted, with Sarah accusing her husband of behaving badly towards her.

Many years later, on the 17th July 1762, Blake married again, notwithstanding his first wife still being alive. His wife by this second bigamous marriage was a widow, Phillis Ewen or Ewens of Brompton, Kensington, and the couple married in the church there.  Phillis, like Sarah before her, was ill used by her husband. She was eventually approached by a gentlewoman, a stranger to Phillis but someone who knew the history of her husband and knew how he treated his wife. This stranger gave Phillis the shocking news that she was no wife at all, that a first Mrs Blake was still living in Southwark. Phillis enlisted a friend, a Mr Nicholas Osbourn or Osborne, a gentleman and a neighbour of hers, to establish the truth of the matter. Osbourn straight away examined the parish registers of St. Saviour’s in Southwark on behalf of Phillis and, on finding out that everything the stranger had told her was true, Phillis brought a case against her supposed husband for bigamy.

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Two images of Southwark via http://www.ancestryimages.com

The case was heard at London’s Old Bailey on the 24th February 1768. Philip Blake’s defence, that he did not know Sarah Perkins and that he was not the person that had married her was not believed and a guilty sentence was passed down by the judge. The punishment for bigamy was to be branded in the hand with a hot iron, and that sentence was duly carried out, marking Philip Blake as a bigamist to the end of his days.

Phillis Ewen went back to her home to rebuild her life. She lived on Brompton Lane, opposite the Bell public house in Kensington (probably the Bell and Horns which stood on the corner of Brompton Road and Brompton Lane) and kept a small market garden which was no doubt where Philip Blake, a gardener, had worked. Blake’s adult son, possibly from his marriage with Sarah Perkins, had lived with the couple and still lived with Phillis even after the departure of his father from the former marital home.

Late in April 1768 Phillis received a message from Blake; he begged that she would come to see him at his lodgings by Nibe’s pound near Oxford Road for he feared he was near death. Since the bigamy trial and being branded in his hand he had suffered a fall in which he had hurt his leg. The leg had turned black and bad. Blake pleaded with Phillis to allow him to return to her home, repenting of his previous life but Phillis would not be swayed. Blake then ominously told her that if she did not consent to take him back it would be the ‘utter ruin’ of them both.

A few days later, on the 2nd May 1768 and between 9 and 10 o’clock in the evening, a woman who lodged in Phillis Ewen’s Brompton Lane home went upstairs and opened a sash window to let in the cool evening air. She saw someone running across the garden and went to tell Phillis. It was Blake’s son, running to meet his father who was hidden amongst some gooseberry bushes at the end of the garden. Blake tried to gain entrance to the house, saying he had come to fetch some of his clothes which had been left at his former home. Phillis, perhaps feeling sorry for the state he was reduced to, let him in and he sat down and began to bemoan his fate. Phillis, by banishing him from her home and away from her garden, had deprived him of the means of making a living and for this he blamed her.

Phillis had had enough. She went to open the door to turn him out but, with her hand still on the door handle, heard the woman who lodged with her, scream and cry out, “Mr Blake, what are you going to do?” Phillis turned and saw Blake pulling a pistol from his pocket. A scuffle ensued in which Phillis, assisted by Blake’s son, struggled with her former husband, trying to take hold of the pistol. Blake fell down in the passage way, in the dark; Phillis was now truly afraid and begging him to spare her life, promising to do anything if he would.

Blake told Phillis, if she wanted to live, to come with him to the door to the garden where he would tell her what he wanted her to do. About three yards from the door he clasped his left arm around Phillis’ head, pulled her towards him and, holding the pistol in his right hand, shot her in the neck, intending to murder her. Phillis fell back into the arms of her female companion and Blake’s son while Blake himself ran away into an arbour from where a further gunshot was heard.

Elizabeth Freeman, another woman who had an apartment in the house, heard the cry of “murder” from downstairs. She ran to the scene of the commotion to find Phillis Ewen’s hair and cap on fire (from the charge contained in the pistol), blood running down her neck, convinced that she was dying and that the bullet was still lodged inside her. But Phillis had been lucky, the lead bullet had entered the back of her neck on the left-hand side and passed straight through; after the wounds had been dressed and stitched she was left with a scar on either side of her neck but no other lasting injury.

When men went to look for Blake in the arbour, thinking he had killed himself, they found no sign of his body. He was eventually found between four and five o’clock the next morning, in a stable, having slit his throat with his small gardener’s budding knife but still alive. He was carried to a hospital where his throat was stitched and, once he had recovered, he was taken to the New Prison at Clerkenwell to await his trial for the attempted murder of Phillis Ewen. When she heard that Blake was to be released from prison the woman who had witnessed the shooting, whose name is not mentioned in any of the reports on the trial, was in such a great terror that she left London, going into Essex rather than stand as a witness and face Blake once more. Phillis Ewen, however, was made of sterner stuff.

Phyllis - New Prison

On the 6th July 1768, Blake found himself for the second time that year in the dock of the Old Bailey. In his defence he said that he had asked Phillis, when she went to his lodgings, for some plants from the garden and for the return of some of his things left at her house; she, he claimed, refused to allow either. Blake also said he had made over three houses to Phillis, the Kensington one she lived in, another at Knightsbridge and one further at Hyde Park Corner; Phillis countered with the fact that these were her houses before she had married Blake and not his. A silver punch ladle was also a bone of contention; Blake said it was his, Phillis said it was bought with her own money.

Blake said he had taken the pistol with him to the Brompton Lane house because, if Phillis would not let him return, he intended to commit suicide. Finding Phillis inflexible he claimed he had pulled her towards him, not to kill her but, to buss or kiss her and claimed, that when Phillis pulled her head away, that the pistol went off accidentally.

After his defence, the record of his trial and conviction for bigamy just months earlier was read, and the verdict was passed down.

Guilty.

The sentence was Death.

220px-Tyburn_tree

He was held at Newgate until he was taken to the gallows at Tyburn on Wednesday 27th July 1768. Reports described him as a grave looking and elderly man, around 60 years of age. He was penitent, repented of his crimes and sins and reportedly admitted at his end to one further bigamous marriage.

Last Wednesday morning, Philip Blake, for shooting Phillis Ewen, was executed at Tyburn . . . Blake, the unfortunate convict, executed as above, for shooting at one of his wives, has left three widows behind him, he having acknowledged to a person who attended him, that he had been married to so many.

The Oxford Journal of 30th July 1768:

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click to enlarge

Phillis Ewen bore the scars of her assault for a further eleven years before dying, in 1779, at Purser’s Cross near Fulham. Her trip down the aisle with Philip Blake was to be her last; she took no further husband.

Sources:

www.oldbaileyonline.org

www.londonlives.org

Westminster Journal and London Political Miscellany, 2nd July 1768

Gazetteer and New Daily Advertiser, 8th July 1768

Westminster Journal and London Political Miscellany, 30th July 1768

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One thought on “A sordid tale of bigamy and attempted murder in Georgian London

  1. Pingback: Merkwaardig (week 27) | www.weyerman.nl

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