Who's Who

The Mysterious Case of Elizabeth Canning

Bevis Hillier investigates the alleged abduction 250 years ago, of a young servant girl, which divided London society at the time and has puzzled historians ever since.

Elizabeth CanningOn New Year’s Day 1753 an eighteen-year-old London maidservant called Elizabeth Canning was abducted in the City by two ruffians. She was carried off in a carriage to a brothel in Enfield, eleven miles out of London. Here, ‘Mother Wells’, the madam of the establishment, tried to force her to become a prostitute. Canning refused. A hideous gypsy crone staying in the house, Mary Squires, cut off the girl’s stays (worth 10 shillings), and Elizabeth was imprisoned in an attic with only a few crusts of bread and a jug of water to live on. On January 29th, after almost a month in captivity, she escaped through a window and walked all the way back to her mother’s house in the City. That, at least, was Canning’s story; and she was sticking to it.

Somebody who quickly heard of her return was her master, Edward Lyon, a jobbing cabinet-maker who worked mainly for the Goldsmiths’ Company. He was in the habit of drinking at a rowdy club near Goldsmiths’ Hall, run by Gawen Nash, a former goldsmith who was by now the Company’s official butler. Lyon told his drinking companions what had allegedly happened to his poor servant. On February 1st, a posse rode from the City to Enfield, including Nash and the silversmiths Edward Aldridge the younger and John Hague. Elizabeth Canning herself also came down in a chaise. Mother Wells and the gypsy were arrested and hauled before an Enfield magistrate. Another person who enters the story at an early stage is the novelist Henry Fielding, who was a Middlesex magistrate. He was asked to interrogate the unaptly named Virtue Hall, a girl from Wells’ house who was maintaining she had never set eyes on Canning. Under Fielding’s bullying she recanted and supported Elizabeth’s story.

Squires and Wells were tried at the Old Bailey in 1753. Wells was sentenced to be branded on the thumb for keeping a disorderly house – a punishment carried out forthwith amid a jeering, exultant crowd. Squires, the gypsy, was sentenced to be hanged for stealing Canning’s stays. But Sir Crisp Gascoyne, who as Lord Mayor of London was ex officio chief magistrate and sat in on the trial, was apparently dissatisfied with the verdict. He was impressed by the gypsy woman’s alibi, which was, that at the time of the alleged assault, she had been in Dorset, and that she had respectable witnesses (among them, a clergyman) to prove it.

Gascoyne appealed to George II, who granted, first a stay of execution, then a free pardon to the gypsy. Now Elizabeth Canning was indicted for perjury and imprisoned in Newgate – where Hogarth painted her portrait, now lost. Another artist, Thomas Worlidge, made drawings of both Canning and Squires from life. The London mob did not like the turn events had taken. To them Canning was a tabloid heroine who had risked death by starvation rather than suffer dishonour. They called Sir Crisp Gascoyne ‘The King of the Gypsies’ and broke the windows of his golden coach.

By 1754 the case had become a cause célèbre . It divided the nation. The two opposing factions were known as ‘Canaanites’ (Canningites) and ‘Egyptians’ (those who supported the gypsy). Years later, in his memoirs of 1790 the actor-manager Tate Wilkinson recalled:

Elizabeth Canning [and] Mary Squires the gypsy were such universal topics in 1752 [he meant l753-54] that you would have supposed it the business of mankind, to talk only of them ...

Charles Churchill wrote in his poem ‘The Ghost’ (1762-63):

Betty Canning was at least
With Gascoyne’s help, a six months’ feast.

William Jackson stated in The New and Complete Newgate Calendar (1818):

No affair that was ever determined in a judicial way did, perhaps, so much excite the curiosity, or divide the opinion of the public, as that in question. The newspapers and magazines were for a long time filled with little else than accounts of Canning and Squires: prints of both parties were published, and bought up with great avidity. Canning was remarkable for ... the plainness, and Squires for the ugliness, of person; and perhaps there never was a human face more disagreeable than that of the latter.
We should hardly be thought to exceed the truth, if we were to say that ten thousand quarrels arose from, and fifty thousand wagers were laid on, this business. All Great Britain and Ireland seemed to be interested in the event: and the person who did not espouse either one party or the other was thought to have no feeling. The first question in the morning was, ‘What news of Canning?’ and the last squabble at night was, whether she was honest or perjured ...

One of the many prints issued  shows the gypsy on a broomstick – the only way, the caricaturist implied, that Squires could have been in Enfield and Dorset on the same day. Another depicted Canning, with the caption ‘Truth Will Come Out or Miss in Her Month’ (a pun on the title of David Garrick’s 1747 play, Miss in Her Teens ): the favourite theory of the anti-Canning party was that she had been in seclusion having an illegitimate baby or an abortion.

The affair also provoked a spate of pamphlets. Henry Fielding wrote one to defend Canning and himself. Sir Crisp Gascoyne issued one in support of the gypsy. Dr John Hill, who indulged in scurrilous journalism as ‘The Inspector’ and was an enemy of Fielding, dashed off an anti-Canning pamphlet, with several sideswipes at the novelist. The Scottish portrait painter Allan Ramsay wrote an anti-Canning pamphlet under a pseudonym, though everybody seems to have known it was written by him. Even Voltaire issued a tract on the Canning case, contrasting the open English system of justice with the closed French system.

Sir Crisp Gascoyne’s pro-gypsy pamphlet received a pungent reply – A Refutation of Sir Crisp Gascoyne’s Address to the Liverymen of London , a strongly-worded pamphlet signed by six men, headed by the potter Nicholas Crisp (c.1704-74). 

At her trial, Elizabeth Canning was found guilty of perjury and was sentenced to be transported to America for seven years; she was forbidden to return during that time, on pain of death. Her influential friends (some of them in the East India Company) made special arrangements for her to be shipped to America in comfort, in an Indiaman, saving her from the appalling squalor and dangers of a convict ship. She went to Wethersfield, Connecticut, where she lodged with a Congregationalist minister, Elisha Williams, a sometime Rector of Yale. She married John Treat, great-nephew of a Governor of Connecticut, and had five children. She died in America in 1773, a respectable matron aged thirty-eight. She had never broken her public silence on the case that had made her notorious, though the market for her story would have been great.

Long after her death her mystery continued to fascinate writers, lawyers and historians. Sir Walter Scott mentioned her in a letter; George Borrow in a book. The poet Austin Dobson contributed the entry on Canning to the Dictionary of National Biography (1886), in which she is billed simply as ‘malefactor’. Andrew Lang, writing in 1904, also thought her guilty. Agatha Christie took a keen interest in the case, mentioning it in at least two novels. In 1948 Josephine Tey based her mystery novel The Franchise Affair on the Canning scandal, transposing the events into the twentieth century and taking the gypsy’s side. Almost certainly she derived the plot from Elizabeth Is Missing (1947), a highly coloured book about Canning by the  American writer ‘Lillian de la Torre’ (the pseudonym of Lillian Bueno McCue).

Besides McCue’s book, five other non-fiction volumes on Canning were published in the twentieth century. The authors include a mystical novelist, Arthur Machen; a Cambridge zoology don, the late John Treherne; and a golf correspondent of The Times , Bernard Darwin. (His 1950s paperback on the case was given a cover of maximum luridness.) The latest writer to attempt to crack the Canning case is Judith Moore, Professor of English at the University of Alaska. Her feminist treatment – with Canning as a ‘victim’ – is the best, most scholarly treatment so far; but neither she nor any of the other authors has been able to establish exactly what was going on in the Canning episode, or to offer a watertight answer to the riddle: which, if either, was telling the truth, Canning or Squires?

I have not been able to solve the mystery, either; but I believe I have got some leagues closer to a solution.  One detail struck me: was it not a remarkable coincidence that the forename of Sir Crisp Gascoyne and the surname of the pamphleteer who strongly opposed his pro-Squires stance, Nicholas Crisp,  were the same? How and why did this other Crisp come to be involved in the affair? Was it possible the two were related? In contemplating this possibility I have had one big advantage over earlier writers interested in the case. I knew who Nicholas Crisp was and that he was a potter: my earliest books, written in the 1960s, were on pottery and porcelain; I have been a member of the English Ceramic Circle for over forty years. The only previous author who even mentions Nicholas is Judith Moore; and in a letter to me she admits that she did not know his identity.

Until recent years, experts on eighteenth-century ceramics had no idea what kinds of wares Crisp made. They knew from newspaper advertisements that he had manufactured porcelain at Vauxhall, London. They also knew that he had been one of the founders of the (Royal) Society of Arts in 1754 – the year of Canning’s trial – and that he had designed the society’s official seal. But no one was able to identify a single piece from his china factory of the 1750s.

Then, in the 1980s, the Museum of London excavated the Vauxhall site. From the ‘wasters’ (reject pieces) they found, they were now able to assign a lot of wares to Crisp’s factory, many of them painted or transfer-printed with flowers. It is also known that after the Vauxhall venture failed in 1763, Crisp founded an earthenware factory at Bovey Tracey, Devon, at which he made rococo-bordered wall plaques of Canning and Squires.

Nicholas Crisp was born about 1704, Gascoyne in 1700 so the two  were near contemporaries. Crisp the potter was a descendant of the rich brickmaker Sir Nicholas Crisp (1598-1666), a royalist who helped both Charles I and Charles II. Looking into the possible connections between the two Nicholases and Sir Crisp, I found that on January 1st, 1690, Sir Crisp Gascoyne’s father Benjamin, a corn-chandler of Chiswick, near London, had married Anne Crisp in London. It is possible that Crisp Gascoyne and Nicholas Crisp were first cousins.

There was also a link between Nicholas Crisp and Enfield. At Chiswick – which was also associated with the Gascoyne family – is buried another Nicholas Crisp, the potter’s uncle. His tomb can still be seen there. It records the death of ‘NICOLAS [sic] CRISP Esqr.’ who died in 1706 ‘having been many years afflicted with an Asthma and the stone ... quite worn out and weary of life’. The tomb also commemorates his elder daughter, Lady Gough (d. 1713), widow of Sir Richard Gough, Bart. Like the Crisp family, the Goughs had done the Stuarts good service. Their main seat was at Edgbaston, near Birmingham; but the Sir Richard Gough who married the Crisps’ daughter was an East India Company director who owned an impressive riverside house in Chelsea, Gough House. His elder brother was Sir Henry Gough of Perry Hall, Staffordshire, the man who turned Dr Johnson out of his house in Gough Square, London, for disturbing the neighbours.

Sir Henry’s son Harry Gough was a wealthy East India Company captain plying the China trade. He brought home Chinese porcelain decorated with his and his wife’s arms. In the early 1720s Harry Gough bought a large house in Enfield. There he died in 1751. His son Richard Gough, also of Enfield, became a famous antiquary. In February 1838 the Gentleman’s Magazine published extracts from ‘A Pocket-book of 1752, and Diary of Master Richard Gough’. In 1752 (the year he left Westminster School), the future antiquary was sixteen. The diary entries are tantalisingly brief; but one of them mentions a ‘Mrs Wells’. It is hard to resist the notion that this may have been the infamous Mother Wells.

A Gascoigne family (sometimes spelt Gascoyne) was also prominent in Enfield. I think it likely that it was related to Sir Crisp Gascoyne, of whom the writer and television presenter Bamber Gascoigne is a direct descendant. The Vicar of Enfield from 1681 to 1721 was Dr Joseph Gascoigne. His son, who assumed the name Nightingale under the will of a rich uncle, married Lady Elizabeth Shirley, daughter of the second Earl Ferrers – the woman immortalised in a dramatic tomb by Louis-François Roubiliac in Westminster Abbey. Lady Elizabeth’s sister Selina was the famous Methodist Countess of Huntingdon, who had a house at Enfield Chase. The Gascoignes of Enfield were related to the Goughs of Enfield.

A person who strongly hinted that the Canning scandal was part of a grand, dark conspiracy was John ‘Orator’ Henley, an elderly preacher who had been mocked by Pope in The Dunciad . Daniel Lysons wrote, in the ‘Enfield’ section of his The Environs of London (1795):

Henley entertained the audience, at his oratory, with eulogies upon her [Elizabeth Canning], and invectives against her adversaries; nor were there wanting persons of the most respectable character, who gave her their countenance and support ...

Lysons also compiled for Horace Walpole a scrapbook (now in the British Library) of Henley’s sensationalist newspaper ‘trailers’ for his Sunday sermons at the oratory. Many of these concern Canning. And Henley seems to have had a direct conduit to Enfield; for example, he reported the death of Captain Harry  Gough in 1751 and suggested that he had been ‘poysoned’.

Henley was half-crazy; and conspiracy theories are always risky. But the contemporary interest in the Canning case at a high level suggests that this was not just a matter of idle wagers about a maidservant’s word against a gypsy’s. Surviving letters of Henry Fielding show that in 1753 he was being badgered to hurry along his investigations by no less than the Duke of Newcastle, who in 1754 (the year of Canning’s trial) succeeded his brother, Henry Pelham, as prime minister. I suspect that big money was somehow involved.

The large fortune of the vicar’s son, Joseph Gascoigne Nightingale, could possibly be at the centre of the affair and might account for the energetic involvement of Sir Crisp Gascoyne, whose otherwise self-serving and at times discreditable career does not suggest the sort of altruist who would bestir himself over the fate of a gypsy. (We know that he diverted the revenues of an Ilford hospital, of which he was a trustee, to his son, Bamber Gascoyne – a prosecuting counsel at Canning’s trial; also, that as a Verderer of Epping Forest, he permitted friends to enclose areas, to his own profit.) Nightingale, who bought the estate of Mamhead in Devon, died on the eve of the Canning scandal in 1752. He had a son, Washington Nightingale, but he died of smallpox in 1754, leaving everything to his sister Elizabeth. She married the first Earl of Lisburne.

If you ask ‘what was the most significant event in Britain in January 1753?’ – the month Canning was allegedly in captivity in Enfield – the answer has to be ‘the death of Sir Hans Sloane on January 11th’; so  another line of enquiry opens up. It was the will of this hugely rich collector which led to the founding of the British Museum in that same year. Sloane had several Enfield connections. He had been a friend of the Enfield botanist Dr Robert Uvedale, who had been at Trinity, Cambridge, with Isaac Newton and was the best friend of Dr Joseph Gascoigne, Vicar of Enfield. Uvedale ran a boarding-school in Princess Elizabeth’s Palace, Enfield; among the pupils were Sloane’s nephews, William Sloane and Sloane Elsmere (later Vicar of Chelsea). Captain Harry Gough of Enfield, before his possibly suspicious death in 1751, was a trustee of Sloane’s will. Leading members of the Moravian sect were also trustees – and here there is another link with Nicholas Crisp, whose cousin Mary Crisp was a top-ranking Moravian, and  who took on Moravian apprentices. The sect had acquired land from Sloane to settle on. Sloane’s daughter Elizabeth married Lord Cadogan. The link between the Cadogan family and Enfield continued: G.E. Cokayne’s Complete Peerage records that the second Earl Cadogan (Sir Hans Sloane’s great-grandson) died insane in Enfield in 1832.

The synchronicity of Canning’s alleged imprisonment and Sloane’s death, the Enfield connections of both, the involvement of the Moravians and Sloane’s friendship with Captain Harry Gough, all point to a possible conspiracy relating to Sloane’s great fortune. It would probably have been obvious before January 1st, 1753 – the day of Canning’s alleged kidnap – that Sloane was dying.

However, another lead deserves to be followed up. Although Nicholas Crisp had links with the Moravians, and although he was married at St Mildred, Bread Street, the City church where his ancestor, Sir Nicholas Crisp, worshipped, he was primarily associated with a group of dissenters at a chapel in Bury Street, London, whose treasurer he was for a time. The chapel had been built in 1708 for the congregation of Dr Isaac Watts, the hymn writer. Several of the congregation lived in Stoke Newington, and a number of them was related to the family of Oliver Cromwell. One of these was Mrs Elizabeth Cooke (c.1699-1763) of Stoke Newington, wife of a Governor of the Bank of England and a great-granddaughter of General Charles Fleetwood, Cromwell’s son-in-law.

Before Canning left for America in 1754, Mrs Cooke gave £100 to four trustees: this sum and the interest on it were to be paid to Canning on her return from exile, to set her up in a business. Was this just charity, or was it payment for services rendered or some kind of hush money? (It is not known what happened to this fund). Thickening the plot, Mrs Cooke was a near-relation of Joseph Hurlock, Governor of Benkulen, Sumatra, a leading Moravian who let Nicholas Crisp’s nieces run a school for young ladies in General Charles Fleetwood’s old house in Stoke Newington, which had been left to Hurlock’s wife.

In my more adventurous musings, I have wondered whether Elizabeth  Canning might have been providing a baby for a couple who could not beget one – perhaps a male heir was required to inherit property. In 1736 Mrs Cooke’s niece Mary had married Sir John Bernard, Bart. One of the contemporary sources records that he was active on Canning’s behalf. Bernard was a  kinsman of the Backwell family of Tyringham Hall, Buckinghamshire. The Backwells, who married into the Tyringham family, had included the  wealthy Alderman Edward Backwell (d. 1683), regarded as the founder of the clearing bank system in Britain. By 1753 there was great need of a male heir in this family. Tyringham Backwell, whose mother, Elizabeth, was the last in the line of Tyringhams and heir to the family  fortune, was an old man (he died in 1754). He had married a sister of Samuel Child, the banker. Their eldest son, another Tyringham Backwell, had died without male issue in 1748. Their second son, Barnaby Backwell (d. 1754), a banker, had a childless first marriage; in 1747 he had married again, but five years later his second wife, too, had not produced a son.

On January 7th, 1753 – in his history of Buckinghamshire, William Lipscomb gives the exact date – a son, the third Tyringham Backwell, was finally born to Barnaby and his wife. So this baby was born in the very month in which Elizabeth Canning was allegedly in seclusion. What I am postulating sounds melodramatic, I know; but the possibility cannot be discounted.

The author Arthur Machen thought that the Canning enigma would never be unravelled. It will certainly bear more intense scrutiny from historians than it has hitherto received. I remain torn between my ‘death of Sloane’ hypothesis and my ‘birth of Backwell’ theory – while at the same time accepting that both might one day be exploded. Future starting-points for the researcher could be the large collection of pamphlets about Canning at Yale University, and the diaries of leading Moravians held at that sect’s headquarters in Germany.

Bevis Hillier is the author of John Betjeman: New Fame, New Love (John Murray, 2002) .

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