A Murder at Fleet Prison

We begin this story, which only just made it onto our radar, with two gentlemen – Lewis Pleura, who was born in Italy and referred to himself by the title of Count, and who was very fond of gambling, and as such, eventually found his way into Fleet debtors’ prison, where he became acquainted with Nathaniel Parkhurst.

View of the inner court of the Fleet Prison, with the prisoners playing rackets and skittles on the left, 1807.
View of the inner court of the Fleet Prison, with the prisoners playing rackets and skittles on the left, 1807. © The Trustees of the British Museum

Nathaniel was from the village of Lower Catesby, near Daventry and descendant of John Parkhurst, the owner of Catesby Abbey and one of county’s major landowners of the time. He went up to Wadham College, Oxford in 1692, aged 16 where he got in with the wrong crowd who spent their time ridiculing religion, and making a jest of the scriptures, and everything that was held sacred.

It was on 3rd March 1715 that Nathaniel Parkhurst was indicted at the Old Bailey for the murder of Lewis Pleura and on a second count, of stabbing.

Parkhurst and the deceased were fellow prisoners in the Fleet prison for debt. Parkhurst had apparently sat up drinking until three o’clock in the morning when he went into the room of Pleura where an argument broke out between the two with Parkhurst saying that Pleura owed him four guineas.

Soon after this, everyone was woken by screams of ‘murder, murder’ and Parkhurst was found with his sword having stabbed Pleura some twenty times, leaving a trail of blood all over the floor.

A Plan of Fleet Prison. British Museum
A Plan of Fleet Prison. British Museum

The surgeon was immediately sent for, but of course, it was far too late. He dressed the deceased and placed him in bed, declaring that Parkhurst had assassinated him. Parkhurst, seeing the deceased in bed went to the corpse shouting ‘damn you Pleura, are you not dead yet?’.

When questioned about the murder, Parkhurst said he had no knowledge of committing it and that he had been in an ‘unhappy state of mind’ for the past two and a half years. Witnesses were called to confirm that Parkhurst was not of stable mind, however evidence proved to be the opposite – he knew exactly what he had done. The jury found him guilty and sentenced him to death.

1729. The Representations of the several Fetters, Irons, & Ingines of Torture that were taken from the Marshalsea Prison. Item F shows the strong room at Fleet. British Museum
T1729. The Representations of the several Fetters, Irons, & Ingines of Torture that were taken from the Marshalsea Prison. Item F shows the strong room at Fleet. British Museum

Soon after he received sentence of death, he began to see the error of his ways and acknowledged the truth of the religion he had ridiculed. He confessed that the dissolute course of life which he had led had wasted his substance and weakened his intellectual faculties.

It was recorded that on the morning of execution, he ordered a fowl to be prepared for his breakfast, of which he seemed to eat with a good appetite and drank a pint of liquor with it, then was launched into eternity of on 20th May 1715, leaving a wife and two children, John and Altham.

8 thoughts on “A Murder at Fleet Prison

  1. mistyfan

    Fleet Prison dates back to Elizabethan times at least. I have read accounts of people who were imprisoned there under orders of Elizabeth.

    And look at the devices above that these people were locked into. The one on the bottom left is still used in some countries.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. mistyfan

        All the prisons were dreadful at the time. A lot of people died under the conditions, including “gaol fever”, a form of typhus. Newgate was particularly notorious and dreaded for its conditions. If you had money you could buy your way into better conditions and treatment. Prisoners often came to court disease-ridden. This gave rise to the custom of clerks bringing nosegays to court in the belief the scent would ward off the disease from the prisoners, which they mistakenly believed was carried by bad smells.

        Liked by 1 person

    1. Sarah Murden

      From the little I have read about the prison wardens, it appears that from 1711 the warden was a John Huggins, who ran the prison into the ground. It was briefly taken over in 1728 by the notorious Thomas Bambridge who found himself sentenced to a term in Newgate, for extortion. Towards the end of the 1720s many questions were raised about the appalling treatment of prisoners, some who were healthy when admitted but who rapidly died once imprisoned. It was also alleged that Bambridge allowed prisoners to escape if they paid him and even provided a trap door for them to use.

      Things had become so bad that a Parliamentary Committee was formed to investigate, and it was in July 1729, on a salary of £300 per annum, that your James Gambier took over as warden. His occupation at the time being that of solicitor. He was in fact the ‘solicitor to the trustees for the forfeited estates of the late South Sea directors’.

      The National Archives hold some documents which describe James as ‘late warden of the prison’ and are dated 1739, which would tie in with the fact that James had been appointed The Solicitor of Excise in 1737.

      James died at his home in Hatton Gardens in September 1745. His obituary said that he was solicitor to the Honourable the Commissioners of Excise, and Counsellor at Law, he was Standing Counsel to the Honourable the South Sea Company. Strangely there was no mention of him being warden of Fleet prison, perhaps that was not deemed important enough to include.

      The noted 19th century genealogist, Thomas Christopher Banks esquire (a name which always makes my heart sink), confirmed that your James Gambier was the son of Nicholas Gambier, a Huguenot was definitely the warden of Fleet prison. TC Banks also confirmed that James married a Mary, daughter of ______ Mead, and that they had four sons and three daughters, and that James died 1745 in Lincoln’s Inn Fields.


      1. sylvia wright

        Oh that’s brilliant! Thanks so much. It’s filled in a lot of holes.

        Mary Mead was the daughter of Robert Mead & his wife Mary. Robert was the son of Rev. Matthew Mead, 1629-1689.

        Robert & his wife Mary also had a son, Capt. Samuel Mead, RN, FRS, 1707-1776. Their daughter Mary married James Gambier and one of their daughters was Margaret, 1730-1792 who was instrumental in abolishing slavery : http://mikerendell.com/to-mark-international-womens-day-a-reminder-of-the-achievements-of-margaret-gambier-a-k-a-lady-middleton/

        Another child was was James Gambier, Admiral of the Red Squadron, 1725-1789 (a most unpleasant person by all accounts!)

        One of their descendants was Capt. James Fitzjames, the illegitimate son of Sir James Gambier, 1772-1844 who was on Sir John Franklin’s ill fated expedition to find the NW Passage. I am descended from one of his legitmate children!

        Warm Regards, Sylvia

        Liked by 2 people

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