William Parsons: 18th Century highwayman, swindler and rogue

When the sun of my life is in its zenith, and I should be expected to shine in meridian lustre, behold me, like a fair opening flower, blasted by a Southern wind. See me, in a shattered bark, ready to launch in a tempestuous Sea; no chart to guide, no compass for to steer my course by, but left to the rough waves and the howling winds, till that I sink beneath the dreadful storm. How shocking is the prospect! And was a dismal night-piece is here!

This anticipation of my miseries is still enhanced by the cruel wracking thoughts of never seeing you, nor my dear injured son; yet, perhaps, we may meet again, in realms of never ending bliss, no more to part. . . . Time seems to tread with hasty strides, and new-fledged wings, and hurry me to my approaching fate. O fatal doom!

(Extract from one of the last letters written by William Parsons to his wife)

William Parsons, Esquire, second son of Sir William Parsons of Short Hill and Stanton le Wold in Nottinghamshire, led a somewhat tumultuous if short life, ending it by swinging from the gallows at Tyburn.

William Parsons
William Parsons

His mother was Frances, niece to Mary, Duchess of Northumberland. Born in Red Lion Square in London, the son of William and Frances Parsons and baptized on the 1st January 1717/18 at St. Andrew’s in Holborn, young William was educated at Eton where he began his criminal career. Caught stealing from a local bookseller, he was publicly flogged for his misdemeanours.

Because of this he was taken out of Eton and placed as a midshipman on board a sloop bound for Jamaica. Instead he absconded and fell in love with a doctor’s daughter living at Bishop’s Waltham in Hampshire, only to be foiled when his uncle found him and returned him to his ship.

Arriving in Jamaica, William immediately made for England and Waltham, to return to his love, and was again intercepted by his uncle and this time sent to Newfoundland. On his return from this venture, he found that, owing to his escapades, his expected inheritance from his great-aunt, the Duchess of Northumberland, had gone to his sister, Grace, instead, who was reported to have been bequeathed between £15,000 and £25,000 (he endeavoured, with the help of his sister’s footman, to have her abducted and, once married to the footman, intended to split her fortune between them but this plan was foiled). Following the death of his mother from an apoplectic fit at her lodgings in Piccadilly in 1735 his father remarried two years later to Isabella, the widow of Delaval Dutton.

Lovers in a Landscape by Pieter Jan Van Reysschoot, 1740
Lovers in a Landscape by Pieter Jan Van Reysschoot, 1740

Sir William, his father, now got him a place in the service of the Royal African Company of England and our hero travelled to James Fort on the River Gambia, but that did not suit him either and he was once more soon on his way back home to England, threatening to shoot anyone who stood in his way of doing so.

Fort James
Fort James

His uncle, Captain Mark Dutton, who lived at Epsom, took William into his house and treated him almost as his son: William repaid his generosity by getting one of the serving maids pregnant and he was soon shown the door (history has not recorded the fate of the serving maid, but possibly she received similar treatment from the master of the house).

Seduced by a Miss E___s, who could not marry as she would forfeit her inheritance if she did so, our hero’s last chance of redemption came when, hearing that his father was in town, he went to his house and, kneeling before Sir William, threw himself on his mercy.  A reconciliation between them took place and William, on the recommendation of his father, attempted to enlist as a private in the Life Guards. But they wanted him to pay seventy guineas to join and William was pecuniarily embarrassed while his father had already departed for Nottinghamshire, leaving behind just five shillings for his errant son.

And so William now embarked properly on his career as a fraudster and criminal. He passed himself off at Vauxhall and Ranelagh as an army officer but in reality hunting for a young girl in command of her own fortune to prey upon. Mary Tregonwell Frampton of Kensington, just eighteen and reportedly left an heiress by the recent death of her father (John Frampton of the Exchequer), fell for his machinations and, on the 9th February 1740/41, at the Chapel on King Street in Westminster, she became the wife of William Parsons and he became the master of her fortune. She had £12,000 and £4,000 was given over to Parsons on their marriage; the remaining £8,000 was used to buy Exchequer Annuities and Parsons received the annual interest on these.

The Rotunda at Ranelagh by Canaletto, 1754
The Rotunda at Ranelagh by Canaletto, 1754

A son, Mark, was born to the couple on the 19th November 1741 (baptized on the 10th December that year at St. James in Piccadilly), followed by William Dutton Parsons, born on the 21st March 1742/43 (and baptized in the same church as his elder brother on the 11th April 1743), but who died young.

William’s family was delighted with this turn of events, and the improvement in his condition and reputation. He was helped to an Ensigncy with Colonel Cholmondeley’s regiment of foot and William saw action in Flanders, being promoted to Lieutenant, while his wife and son remained in London living in Poland Street and Panton Square.

The Battle of Fontenoy, 1745 by Felix Philippoteaux, painted in 1873
The Battle of Fontenoy, 1745 by Felix Philippoteaux, painted in 1873

But William was living too fast, encouraged by a false friend named only as Doctor N___ (possibly Northgate) to squander his wife’s fortune at the gaming tables, and disaster soon overtook him. On his return to England he was chased by creditors and could not return to his young family at Panton Square; instead he took lodgings, calling himself Captain Brown to evade notice. But, true to form, he debauched his landlord’s daughter and fathered two children on her.

A baptism at the London Foundling Hospital on the 19th July 1747 for a Grace Parsons may be one of these two children, named for William’s sister who had married a wealthy Mr Lambert from Kent earlier that year (by the time of her marriage her fortune was being estimated at £30,000). Parsons’s philandering also reputedly took in Lady Frances Vane (formerly Hamilton, née Hawes), who is named as Lady Frail in his Memoirs.

The_Foundling_Hospital_a_birds_eye_view_1753_engraving_by_T.Bowles_after_L.P.Boitard__Coram_in_the_care_of_the_Foundling_Museum
The Foundling Hospital, 1753, engraved by T. Bowles

At Deal, in 1745, as he was about to board a privateer, an attempt was made to apprehend him but Parsons shot and wounded one of the men in his desperation to make the ship, threatening to kill anyone who prevented him. He got as far as Ireland before being taken ill and put ashore. There, when he ran out of money, he drew bills on eminent London tradesmen enabling him to return to England where he lived in some style in Plymouth.

London Evening Post, 2nd January 1746
London Evening Post, 2nd January 1746

Passing as Richard rather than William Parsons his need for ready money induced him, with a female accomplice, to return to London and swindle a parson and a jeweller, and he even stooped so low as to steal from men who classed themselves his friend. Inevitably he was taken into custody. By the August of 1748 he was in the Wood Street Compter. Standing trial at Maidstone assizes, he was initially condemned to death, but this was commuted to fourteen years transportation and so Parsons was shipped to Maryland in Virginia: the voyage there was hard and cruel and, of the 173 convicts on board the transport, fifty of them died during the passage. William Parsons survived and in November 1749 he landed at Annapolis.

A Fleet of Transports under Convoy, Carrington Bowles, 1781, British Museum.
A Fleet of Transports under Convoy, Carrington Bowles, 1781, British Museum.

After a couple of months the Virginian landowner and English Peer Thomas, 6th Lord Fairfax of Cameron, heard an account of Parsons and received him at his house, allowing him a horse to ride. Sir William Parsons had engineered things so his son would be enabled to live handsomely enough in Virginia. But this kindness by his father and Lord Fairfax was repaid by rank ingratitude: Parsons absconded with the horse and took to highway robbery before making for the Potomac River where he sold Lord Fairfax’s horse to buy passage on a ship. Three weeks and four days later he sighted England once more and landed at Whitehaven in Cumbria.

Thomas, 6th Lord Fairfax
Thomas, 6th Lord Fairfax

He immediately recommenced his fraudulent swindles, persuading a Whitehaven merchant to give him £75 by pretending his father was dead and he was home to take possession of a large estate. This money got him back to the gaming tables and bawdy houses of London where he quickly disposed of all his ready cash and had to resort to criminal activities to raise more. And so, at eleven o’clock on an August evening, William Parsons held up a post-chaise on Hounslow Heath.

More highway robberies followed, and the gentleman highwayman gained a certain notoriety. At Turnham Green he returned a wife’s wedding ring to a gentleman he had just taken it from but who begged for its return, handing back five shillings of the thirty he had also purloined from this man on hearing he had no more money: the two men reputedly shook hands before parting at the end of this encounter.

The Highwayman by William Powell Frith(c) Aberdeen Art Gallery & Museums; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation
The Highwayman by William Powell Frith(c) Aberdeen Art Gallery & Museums; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Eventually, breaking his golden rule of carrying out his nefarious activities under the cover of darkness, he set out one fine Sunday morning towards Windsor, having heard that a carriage with a footman and a quantity of money would be passing that way. But also travelling on that road were two men who had prosecuted him at his earlier trial, and so surprised were they to recognize a man who had been transported to Maryland, and who should have still been there, that they insisted upon Parsons surrendering to them at the Rose and Crown Inn at Hounslow. Parsons, realizing resistance was futile, surrendered his pistols to the two gentlemen but then the landlord of the inn casually remarked that Parsons answered the description of the highwayman wanted for the recent spate of robberies on the roads in the area, and a constable was sent for.

And so William Parsons found himself in Newgate, awaiting his execution. He sent several penitent letters to his family, and several more to people of influence, hoping for a reprieve. None was forthcoming, even though his father and his wife petitioned the King for this. Mary Tregonwell Parsons, for all she tried to save her reprobate husband, appears to be a woman full of the common sense she lacked at her hasty wedding a decade earlier. She wrote a very business-like letter to William, setting out her plans to meet with his father and discuss the petition to go before the king, but telling her husband at the same time to prepare to die and chiding him for his first letter to her from Newgate which, in Mary’s opinion, was much too romantic for one in his circumstance. Reading between the lines of her letter, she also seems to suspect that William’s protestations of repentance are more for effect than truly heartfelt. In the end Mary’s aunt delivered the petition, in the names of Mary and her father-in-law, but it was disregarded. The petition sounds a bit half-hearted, and indeed it probably was, for his family had employed a similar action to reduce his sentence of execution for one of transportation only two or three years earlier and it is doubtful they would have had many expectations of Parsons living up to any promises they could make on his behalf on this occasion.

A slightly later image of Newgate by George Shepherd
A slightly later image of Newgate by George Shepherd

The Petition of William Parsons, and Mary Tregonwell Parsons, Father and Wife to the unhappy William Parsons, now under Sentence of death in Newgate, for returning from Transportation,

Most humbly Sheweth,

THAT your petitioners humbly implore your Majesty’s most gracious pardon for the said William Parsons, and faithfully promise, that if your Majesty be pleased to grant the same, they will take care for the time to come, that it shall not be in his power to abuse your Majesty’s clemency, or injure any of your Majesty’s subjects:

And your petitioners (as in duty bound) shall ever pray, &c.

William Parsons

Mary Tregonwell Parsons

William Parsons - Tyburn tree

On the 11th February 1751 William Parsons swung at Tyburn for his crimes.

LONDON, February 12.

Yesterday the Ten Malefactors under Sentence of Death, were carried from Newgate to Tyburn, in four Carts; they all behaved in a decent Manner, becoming Persons under their unhappy Circumstances, but particularly Parsons, who, tho’ he had been so long in Prison, still retained the Appearance of a Gentleman, and seemed to be duly affected with the near Prospect of a future State. [William] Vincent, [Thomas] Clements, and [Anthony] Westley, three Boys, went in the first Cart; [Edward] Smith and [Daniel] Davis, in the second; [Thomas] Applegarth and [Michael] Sauce, in the third; and [James] Field [a stage boxer], [Jeremiah] Sullivan, and Parsons, in the last.

Field’s Legs were chained together, for Fear of a Rescue.

A Hearse attended the Place of Execution for the Body of Parsons, which conveyed him to an Undertaker’s on Snow-hill, in order to be interred.

Mr. Parsons, a little before his Death, ordered a Diamond Mourning Ring, of ten Guineas Value, to be made, with the following Inscription, William Parsons, Ob. 11th Feb. 1750-51, Ætat. 33. The Motto was, When this you see, remember me; which Ring he presented to a certain young Lady, as the last Token of his Affection for her.

Was the diamond ring for his long-suffering wife, or for the landlord’s daughter with whom he had two children? His Memoirs published directly after his death suggest his mistress had remained by his side, both in the Wood Street Compter and during his spell in Newgate. Whoever it went to, it’s probably a safe bet the jeweller wasn’t promptly paid for his work.

 

Sources:

The Baronetage of England; or, the History of the English Baronets, and such Baronets of Scotland, as are of English families; with genealogical tables, by The Rev. William Betham, London, 1802

The Eton College Register, 1698-1752

St James’s Evening Post, 16th May 1747

General Evening Post, 29th May 1735

Stamford Mercury, 30th June 1737

London Evening Post, 2nd September 1738

Read’s Weekly Journal, 23rd June 1750 and 8th September 1750

Derby Mercury, 8th February 1750/51

The Universal Magazine, February 1751

The Tyburn Chronicle: or, Villainy Display’d, volume iii

Remarkable Rogues: the careers of some notable criminals of Europe and America by Charles Kingston, 2nd ed., 1922

Memoirs of the Life and Adventures of William Parsons, by himself, 1751

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5 thoughts on “William Parsons: 18th Century highwayman, swindler and rogue

  1. […] [9] “Mr. Parsons, a little before his Death, ordered a Diamond Mourning Ring, of ten Guineas Value, to be made, with the following Inscription, William Parsons, Ob. 11th Feb. 1750-51, Ætat. 33. The Motto was, When this you see, remember me; which Ring he presented to a certain young Lady, as the last Token of his Affection for her.” https://georgianera.wordpress.com/2015/07/23/william-parsons-18th-century-highwayman-swindler-and-ro… […]

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