New Year – New Ideas

So it is 2011 – I didn’t really think I was looking forward to the new year until it arrived. I feel a great sense of relief to put 2010 behind me and get started on some new projects. As we all know I am now working at The National Archives cataloguing petitions for clemency from 1827. When I started this project I had no idea just how involved I would become with some of these people and how sad some of the cases that I have been working on would make me feel.

Yesterday I spent my afternoon with a man called John French. He kept stables in Chenies Yard (Tottenham Court Road) in 1827. Chenies Yard is actually still there, I google map-ed it and you can tell that the now very plush looking flats and sweet cobbled street were once stables. Actually it is just behind where I went to university, you forget sometimes when pounding the pavements of London, stressed with all your own problems that the streets actually have incredible stories of people who came before you.

So, getting back to John French and his stables in Chenies Yard. Compared to some of the miserable cases I have catalogued over the last few weeks John isn’t too badly off. He has a wife and seven children, he works hard, he likes a drink. Practically all of his witnesses and alibis claim that he seemed ‘tipsy’ when they saw him on and around the 23rd and 24th of July. Money doesn’t seem too tight, his family have somewhere to live and everybody seems to be getting fed.

On the morning of the 24th July 1827 a Mr Benjamin Shaw comes to visit John French’s stables, he is a regular customer and is greeted like one. He brings with him two horses, one with a sore neck and one big brown one. He asks if John French can keep the big, brown one for him for a few days and physic and bleed him (whatever this means – sounds brutal.) John agrees as he often looks after horses for Benjamin Shaw and his family and the man goes on his way. A few hours later a servant arrives at the stables claiming that the horse actually belongs to his master Thomas Samuel Mott who lives in Hertford, that it was stolen in the night and why is it here with John French in the middle of Tottenham Court Road? Panic ensues. John tells the servant to wait while he goes to fetch the man who left the horse with him. He cannot find Benjamin Shaw, only his brother Thomas Shaw who tells him to stay clear of the stables, and to meet him at the Dublin castle in Camden Town at 7pm and the situation shall be sorted. I used to drink in The Dublin Castle in my late teens, I used to watch bands play there, I went to sixth form in Camden, and the story becomes even more close to home.

John French eventually has to go into hiding, his wife is arrested for theft (though she is released after two weeks and four days) and the Shaw’s assign their attorney to John French who eventually destroys evidence, manipulates John French and his witnesses and essentially goes on to frame him for a crime he did not commit. For which it seems John French was executed on the 18th December 1827. As much as I tried i could not detach myself from this story, it made me feel incredibly sad for John French and his family and I just didn’t want him to be lost to history like so many sad stories must be.

I have now catalogued 24 different cases but this is the one that stood out to me the most. I am really enjoying the job and the personal connection it gives me with the past. I feel like I am looking into stories that nobody else knows about and they are mine and I will be trying to share as many of them with you all as possible.


2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. J K Tilsley
    Jan 13, 2011 @ 10:31:47

    Holly – what an amazing and terribly tragic tale. Thank you for sharing this. I used to drink in the Dublin Castle too and I walked up Chenies Street just last week … it’s stories like this that really bring London to life for me.


    • holly1986fairhall
      Jan 13, 2011 @ 10:53:06

      Me tooooo!! The job throws up lots of tales from familiar London places. Read one in Clerkenwell that referenced the houses of detention yesterday as well. Tempted to go to the Dublin castle and have a cheeky one in memory of Mr John French 🙂


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