Let’s begin this piece with William’s surname, I have come across quite a few documents about this man, but none of which seem to know exactly what the spelling of his surname was – Habberfield, Huberfield, Heberfield, Aberfield, the list goes on, was making it impossible so far, to find anything more as yet as to where he came from or even who he was married to. What is known without any doubt though, is the date he died at the age of about 50. So, who was this man and why do we know the date he died?
William was better known to his acquaintances as Slender Billy and lived in one of the worst parts of Pimlico, London. Many parts of Pimlico, especially near the river Thames, were, from the late 1700s into the early 1800s virtual ‘no go’ areas. It was described as being poverty stricken,with many of its inhabitants living in what were described as ‘hovels’.
The area was largely swampy marshland used for grazing, but at night was described as being a distinctly unsafe place to visit, especially around Tothill Fields, Willow Walk and Five Fields. It was in the late 1790s into the mid 1820s that Lord Grosvenor, who owned all land around that area, began an expansive development of this area, with the help of a builder by the name of Thomas Cubitt, transforming it into the area we know today.
It is unclear how long Billy lived on Willow Walk, in what was known as the ‘Seven Chimneys’ area of Pimlico, but there’s no sign of him appearing in the rates returns, but exactly where he lived is not important, as, for those who needed to contact him, knew exactly where to find him. His home was described as being in a key position:
situated between two deep, banked ditches, filled with most filthy water, protected by a wall, and in front by Mrs Hubberfield, her husband, a bear, and two bulldogs.
From that description you weren’t exactly likely to receive a convivial welcome. A further description of the area featured in a book by George Keppel, 6th Earl Albemarle, who knew the area from his time at Westminster School:
Leading from Tothill Fields was a road called Willow Walk, which terminating at the Half Penny Hatch, opened on to the Thames near to the spot on which Millbank Penitentiary now stands.
The road on each side of the walk was bordered by wretched hovels, to which were attached small plots of swampy ground which served the poor inhabitants for gardens and were separated from each other by wide ditches.
Between Mother Hubbard’s and the Willow Walk was a nest of low buildings known by the name of the ‘Seven Chimneys’. The inhabitants were of questionable character, and certainly not of that class with whom ladies would wish darling boys to associate.
Keppel went on to describe Billy:
Of the indwellers of the ‘Seven Chimneys’ the prime favourite of us Westminsters was one William Heberfield, better known by the name of ‘Slender Billy’; a good humoured, amusing fellow, but whose moral character, as the sequel will show, would not bear a searching investigation. All we knew of him was that whenever we wanted a go to hunt a duck, draw a badger, or pin a bull, Billy was sure to provide us with one, no matter how minute we might be in the description of the animal required.
Another author who knew Billy well was Lord William Pitt Lennox, who was at school around the same time as Keppel and provided a lengthy insight into the home and character of Billy.
Billy’s ‘cabin’ was a menagerie for animals of every description, also a convenient ‘fencing repository’ from the lady’s lapdog to the nobleman’s plate. There might be seen a King Charles’ spaniel, ready to be returned whenever the reward offered was raised to ten guineas. There might be found an over-fed pug, for whose loss her disconsolate mistress had nearly cried her eyes out, who was prepared to pledge a diamond ring to recover her lost pet, which arrangement was, in due time, brought about by one of Billy’s emissaries. Independently of the above, there were pointers, terriers, mastiffs, bull dogs, Italian greyhounds, all of which had ‘strayed’ into Habberfield’s yard.
He was considered the safest ‘fence’ in the metropolis, as his dwelling was well suited for concealment, and being garrisoned by bull dogs, it was rendered impregnable by any sudden attack made upon it, by the ‘Charley’s and ‘Bow Street Runners’, of that day.
So, we can tell from these descriptions, that Billy was well known to all classes of society from the under belly of London society to those in the upper echelons – but why?
Billy was regarded as something of a hero, he was a prize fighter and also superintended all the badger-baiting, dog fighting and cock fighting which was carried out in that area. He was also had many connections with burglars and pickpockets. The Chronicles of Newgate, by Arthur Griffiths, also referred to Billy saying:
A system of bull-baits was introduced at Westminster by two notorious characters known as Caleb Baldwin and Hubbersfield, otherwise known as Slender Billy, which attracted great crowds and led to drunkenness scenes of great disorder.
By 1811, Billy, was no longer a resident of Willow Walk. Billy was tried at the Old Bailey for dealing in forged bank notes, but this was not Billy’s first crime, far from it, but prior to this offence he had already been sentenced to prison for two years.
His crime prior to dealing in forged notes, was, it transpired, after a little detective work, that:
On 20 June 1811, William Haberfield, had been convicted at the sittings after last Easter Term, at Westminster Hall, charged with assisting General Jacques Pierre Osten, and other army officers of the French army to break their parole at Litchfield, Staffordshire and escaping to London an after assisting them escape to Holland. Billy was sentenced to two years in his majesty’s gaol of Newgate.
Having been sentenced for this crime, it was whilst in Newgate, that Billy couldn’t resist the chance to make some money and began dealing in forged bank notes – this would prove to be his downfall and he found himself back in court, this time, the sentence of imprisonment was not an option, instead Billy was to meet his maker at the end of the hangman’s noose, despite support for him coming from many quarters of society.
The Morning Chronicle 28 January 1812 noted that he would be executed, along with another prisoner who had been found guilty of housebreaking, and with another name which I was very familiar, with despite the reference only giving his surname – Whitehead, who was sentenced to death for bank forgery.
If Whitehead rings any bells with you, it’s because it was in fact Paul Whitehead, the brother of Sarah Whitehead, the Bank Nun Ghost, who I wrote about recently, so quite a coincidence.
I’ll let Lord William Pitt Lennox conclude this story about Billy’s life and with it, Billy’s sad end, but note the twist at the end of this regarding his wife!
So strictly correct was he in all his dealings that had amassed a large sum of money, the greater part of which being out in a trust went to his widow. He suffered the awful sentence of the law on 29 January 1812, opposite the debtor’s door at Newgate.
Poor Mrs Habberfield mourned the loss of her husband with tears and hysterics, but …
‘Ere yet the salt of most unrighteous tears
Had left the flushing in her galled eyes,
The happy bridegroom being the identical Bow Street runner who, transported by her charms, had captured her dear departed.
Slender Billy was buried at St Martin in the Fields on 11 February 1812 as William Habberfield leaving a wife and two daughters, none of whose identity I have able to establish yet.
Northampton Mercury, 29 June 1811
Forshall, Frederic Hale. Westminster School: Past and Present
Sporting Anecdotes Original and Selected
A West View of Chelsea Bridge called Jenny Whim’s Bridge, Ranelagh British Museum