Who's Who

The Hilton Gang: Terrorising Dissent in 1680s London

The last years of Charles II saw London a hotbed of political and religious conflict. Exploiting it, with powerful backers at court, was a ‘hit squad’ whose underworld techniques would have done credit to the Krays. Mark Goldie uncovers from contemporary documents a reign of terror.

Rich pickings: a map showing the distribution of the Conventicles in 1683, targets for the gang's activities.John Hilton was an odious thug. He was a bully, a liar, a blackmailer and a rapacious fraudster. Yet from 1682 until 1686 he terrorised London with the connivance of some of the highest figures in the land. True to the best traditions of urban gangsterism he had a vicious younger brother, George. They and their henchmen were informers, operating within, on the margins of, and outside the pale of the law. Their victims were Protestant Dissenters: the Presbyterians, Congregationalists, Baptists and Quakers who, contrary to the laws for Anglican uniformity, worshipped in illegal conventicles. The gang infiltrated their meetings, laid information against them, secured justices’ warrants, gave evidence in court, and, when fines were not paid, broke down their doors and shop hatches and seized and sold their goods. They loudly trumpeted their services to religious orthodoxy and the King’s government, and the Archbishop of Canterbury, William Sancroft, thought them useful, for ‘there must be some crooked timber used in building a ship’.

We know little about the Hiltons before the 1680s and nothing about their fate after their downfall. They were called into being by the circumstances of that decade and dismissed from history when religious toleration arrived in James II’s reign. But in their heyday they were the most audacious and organised team of informers in English history. Informers were usually furtive, small-time operators, but the Hilton gang had more than forty members. They did not shirk from prosecuting eminent men and they secured convictions worth tens of thousands of pounds. John Hilton swaggered about town fashionably bedecked in a blue velvet cape and white beaver hat. He expected to be knighted by Charles II for cleansing London of its Puritan and Whig vermin. It is surely unique for an informer to publish a newspaper advertising his exploits: The Conventicle Courant catalogued ‘the daily troubles, dangers and abuses that loyal gentlemen meet with, by putting the laws in execution against unlawful and seditious meetings’.

Historians have characterised the English state in the 1680s as treading a path towards absolutism. No parliament met during Charles II’s last four years; the crown’s fiscal and military resources were secure; and the Whigs and Dissenters who had brought the Restoration monarchy to a crisis were savagely repressed in show trials and mass arrests. Yet it is salutary to test abstract claims about what ‘the state’ or ‘the crown’ was undertaking by considering who was doing what to whom and under what constraints. John Hilton acted by the King’s personal, if verbal, commission, and his career allows us to gauge the amplitude of state power in the later Stuart age. Forcing people to worship in ways that were obnoxious to their consciences was an arduous business which called for unparalleled energy in mobilising the law’s resources. In the early 1680s Dissenters feared that nothing less than their total destruction was intended. But visitons of a purified and unitary Anglican society were apt to break upon the rocks of stubborn nonconformity. The outcome offers a classic instance of the gap between legislative intention and executive achievement. John Hilton’s efforts were herculean, the misery he caused unprecedented, but the picture that emerges is scarcely one of a state whose machinery of enforcement could be made to turn smoothly in one direction only.

Informing was an institutionalised feature of Early Modern legal practice, long predating its notoriety in the context of Restoration religion. It was especially prevalent in the enforcement of economic regulations. Although often unpopular and an encouragement to blackmailers, the practice was too ingrained to be abandoned by a society that lacked modern policing. Not until the nineteenth century did the detection of crime and laying of indictments become the near monopoly of professional state functionaries. At the close of the twentieth, however, it is no longer obvious that this was an irreversible development in the transition to modernity. There is today increasingly a privatised market in law enforcement services, and a burgeoning of vigilantism and informer phonelines. Paradoxically, Early Modern law enforcement now seems less alien than it did during the apogee of state provision. Histories of crime written a generation ago, which traced the rise of benign professional competence and the demise of corrupt amateurism, can now seem tendentiously Whiggish.

What remains alien is that the Hilton gang’s targets were religious Dissenters. They were the agents of the final attempt in English history to coerce people into a uniform national church. The Second Conventicle Act of 1670 was the most notorious statute for religious conformity in the Clarendon Code. It allowed for summary indictment before a single justice on the evidence of two witnesses. It allocated one-third of the fine to the informer, the other two-thirds going to the crown and the poor relief fund. That the Act also made provision for the prosecution of constables and justices for failing to enforce conformity was indicative of the frustration felt by zealots at the blind eye turned to Dissenters by many officials. It betrays a tension between avid informers and indifferent officers.

The Hiltons came from Westmorland. They absconded leaving debts, they may have become soldiers, and they settled in London in the 1670s. Here they got involved in forgery and counterfeit coining, and ran an alehouse in Fetter Lane off Fleet Street.

In May 1682 they sought an audience with the king at Windsor. The king, ‘intimating his displeasure that the laws against Dissenters were not more vigorously put in execution’, commanded the Hiltons ‘to suppress and disturb them’. The brothers’ campaign began immediately. They took out warrants against thirty-four meeting houses in their first two weeks’ operation, and during the early months took out about twenty a week, often blank warrants into which they inserted names. They disturbed meetings all over the City and Westminster, from Wapping to the Strand, Southwark to the Barbican. They repeatedly harassed the same meetings, such as the Quakers at Devonshire House, the Presbyterians in Fleet Street, the Congregationalists at Swallow Street in Westminster, and the Baptists in Gravel Lane, Stepney. This was work for Sundays; weekdays were occupied in distraining goods for non-payment of fines. Sometimes the gang secured imprisonments, but their main concern was to damage livelihoods. A shoemaker lost eighty-one pairs of shoes, and a cheeseman a cheddar worth £7. Fines for attending conventicles were modest, but for preaching they were severe, and the law allowed the imposition of the latter fine upon the hearers. Anne Bellamy paid five shillings for herself and £9 15s as her portion of the preacher’s fine.

Gang members acted as spies, litigants, bailiffs and bouncers, in twos, threes and fours, in differing combinations, such that the trail of the overwhelming number of London prosecutions for Dissent during four years leads inexorably to the Hilton brothers. Gabriel Shadd and Christopher Smith specialised in forcible distraint. Their habit was to appear, with several assistants, at a victim’s house in the evening and make a night of it. In October 1683 they broke into a carpenter’s shop and demanded £20; they stayed all night, ‘making themselves very merry’ on brandy and rum, and in the morning took away cartloads of timber.

At least fifteen of the gang were women. A Quaker remarked that ‘many of them are impudent women, who swear for their profit, their husbands being prisoners for debt’. Eleanor Shafto was also called Mrs Hilton, for she was John Hilton’s mistress. She and Hester Collingwood invented testimonies against people they knew to be Dissenters; if they could not sustain a case they could at least put their victims to legal costs. Collingwood was said to ‘dictate’ to the Lord Mayor. On one occasion, when she reported a conventicle, the constables brought back two culprits, but she ‘bawled out’ to the justices that there were many more, so constables were sent off again.

Despite the combative energy of the Hiltons’ women, one of their own themes was the unnatural practice of female preaching amongst the Quakers. A ‘she-holder-forth’ in Westminster was fined £20 for preaching. Even more unnatural was the violence of female Presbyterians and Congregationalists. When the gang turned up to distrain upon the Congregationalist minister Stephen Lobb, they ‘found the doors barricaded, the windows fast shut, and five or six Amazonian religious sisters upon their defence, each armed with a spit, fire fork, or some suchlike weapon’. The women were defeated, prosecuted and fined £5 each.

Gradually the Hiltons cut a swathe through London’s conventicles. In 1683 prosecutions for Dissent reached unprecedented levels. In 1684 the Hiltons reported to the king that they had broken and dissolved more than forty meeting houses, ‘and also driven from their dwellings, made conform or put into prison forty or more teachers’. After two years, they put the total of fines at £40,000. But they complained that up to three-quarters of the amounts nominally secured went unlevied because of obstruction and the legal and personal effort needed to pursue all distraints. Even so, the Hiltons were lining their pockets.

It is significant that their campaign began in the summer of 1682. The king’s dissolution of the Oxford Parliament in March 1681 marked the beginning of the ‘Tory Reaction’. But the Tories had to move cautiously until they had crushed the Whigs in the City of London, and that was a hard-fought battle. Until it was achieved Dissent remained free. After the execution of Stephen College in July 1681, the first of the show trials, George Jeffreys (who later presided over the ‘Bloody Assize’ against the Monmouth rebels and became Lord Chancellor) was appointed chairman of the Middlesex justices, with the express purpose of moving against the Dissenters. But little progress could be made whilst the City’s judicial system was in the hands of Whig aldermen (who constituted the justices with power to issue warrants and summarily convict), and of juries packed by Whig sheriffs. The crucial breakthrough came in June 1682 when two Tories were nominated sheriffs and forcibly installed after a viciously disputed election. Now, said Jeffreys, ‘the king of England is at last the king of London’.

The Hiltons’ campaign began on the cusp of Tory victory in London politics and provided an important adjunct to the Tory coup, for they set about purging Whig officeholders in London’s parishes. The early issues of the Conventicle Courant focused upon the political loyalties of parish constables. The constable was a linchpin in the structure of local government. He was the justice’s parish servant; but he was also a peace-keeper rooted in the parish community and often elected by it; he was an artisan or shopkeeper whose only social pretension was that he paid the poor rate. Although he acted as an agent of the state, he did not belong to a governing class set apart. He stood at a pressure point, subject to executive orders from above, but sympathetic to the values of his neighbours. In the same way that other offices and institutions fell prey to political purging in the 1680s, the office of constable became increasingly dependent on loyalty to the dominant political mood. This could mean sackings, or cowing the recalcitrant into co-operation, or making their job so unpleasant as to provoke resignations.

Hilton stage-managed a regime of intimidation, less visible but more pervasive than the show trials of Whig magnates. He secured warrants in order to challenge Whig constables to do their legal duty. When they demurred, he publicly named them in his Courant and announced he would prosecute them for dereliction of duty. Sometimes he printed their addresses, a veiled invitation to Tory thugs to pay them a visit. Some constables were Dissenters themselves and were caught worshipping at conventicles.

The reluctance of many constables to act on the Hiltons’ warrants did not stem only from principled support for Dissent. They were concerned for harmony in their parishes. Constable Halkins, basket-maker in Newgate Street, was ‘unwilling to go so far to disturb his peaceable neighbours’. It was common practice for goods distrained from Dissenters to be purchased by nearby friends. Preacher Plant’s shop in Cripplegate was stripped of £40 worth of goods, but neighbours bought them back. The penal schemes of enthusiasts were moderated by the need to avoid destabilising neighbourly relations. Hilton, as a socially unanchored zealot prepared to devote himself full-time to a cause, was uninhibited by such considerations. Small communities had often destroyed informers by ostracism. But Hilton, by transcending parish boundaries, operating on an unprecedented scale and, relying on elite backing, was able to tip the balance in favour of enforcement.

If some constables and justices resisted Hilton, others relished his invitations. When need arose he fetched constables and churchwardens out of Sunday worship in order to take action against conventiclers. Overseers of the poor could be enthusiasts too. They were struggling to hold down the poor rate, and the Dissenters’ enforced contribution to the parish chest of one third of their fines was welcome. In 1683 Timothy Emerson, oilman in St Martin’s, was distrained of £30 worth of goods by a team that included four constables, one churchwarden and seven overseers of the poor. Hilton recorded the gathering of crowds favourable to his cause. The windows of preacher Lobb’s meeting house were smashed, and Mead’s meeting in Stepney was wrecked.

John Hilton’s role in the Tory crackdown reached its apogee when he challenged the great aldermen too. Dissent and Whiggery were connected at the highest levels in City politics. Hilton demanded warrants from Whig aldermen, and recorded their evasions and denials. But Hilton overreached himself when he took on Sir Robert Clayton. Clayton was a fabulously wealthy financier, who had been Lord Mayor and City MP. In November 1682 he stood trial, charged under the Conventicle Act for ‘denying him a warrant to disturb a meeting’. But Clayton prepared his ground by investigating Hilton’s past. When Hilton was shown to be a convicted forger the case collapsed, and he was rabbled by a Whig crowd in court. Yet he survived this debacle, sailing inexorably on the Tory political tide.

Hilton depended on the support of Tory magnates. His most ‘eminent friend and encourager’ was Sir Thomas Jenner, Recorder of London, and prosecuting counsel in several state trials, including that of the republican Algernon Sidney. Jenner signed countless warrants for the Hilton gang and bullied constables and juries. A link with Archbishop Sancroft is visible through Dr Thomas Pinfold, a character witness on Hilton’s behalf in the Clayton case. Pinfold was an ecclesiastical lawyer and crony of Sancroft’s; in 1686 he was knighted; he was said to stand servilely at Lord Chancellor Jeffreys’ elbow. A Whig ballad linked Hilton to:

Pinfold, that spiritual dragoon, who made

By soul-money a pretty thriving trade.

The Whigs blamed Toryism and the church hierarchy rather than the crown. The Hiltons called themselves ‘the king’s informers’, but their enemies called them ‘the Tory informers’.

With the Tory tide flowing fast, in a London deafened by Sir Roger L’Estrange’s hectoring Tory newspapers, and with judicial underpinnings offered by Jeffreys, Jenner and Pinfold, Hilton could afford a remarkable audacity. He used the Conventicle Courant to blacken the names of Whig grandees. He prosecuted London’s most socially elevated conventicles. He invaded the Pinners Hall meeting, the Presbyterians’ chief public platform, where some 1,500 people, including the ‘wives of citizens of no small account’, were present to hear an ‘old seducer run over his schismatical stuff’.

None of the leading Dissenting preachers were left alone. The Presbyterians’ aged leader Richard Baxter was prosecuted:

I was (being newly risen from extremity of pain) suddenly surprised in my house by a violent informer and many constables and officers, who rushed in and apprehended me and served on me five warrants to distrain for £190, for five sermons.

Baxter was allowed house arrest, ‘that I might die at home’. This cut no ice with Hilton, whose spies reported that he was well enough to go under his own steam to ‘the necessity house in the yard’. One of Hilton’s favourite targets was the Congregationalist Stephen Lobb, who disappeared through a trap-door constructed beneath his barricaded pulpit. The Quaker William Penn was prosecuted after returning from his new colony in America. He remarked on the irony: ‘One day I was received well at court as proprietor and governor of a province of the crown, and the next taken up at a meeting by Hilton and Collingwood’.

As in the Clayton case, Hilton over-reached himself on the one occasion that he played for the highest judicial stakes. In 1684 Thomas Rosewall, Presbyterian minister in Rotherhithe, was dragged from his bed, taken before Jeffreys, and charged with treason for words spoken in a sermon. The trial offers illuminating vignettes. When Hilton’s women won the trusting friendship of one of Rosewall’s hearers, they were instructed to wear soft-soled shoes so that they, like others making their way to the meeting through labyrinthine alleyways, would not attract attention. When Rosewall came before Jeffreys he addressed him in Latin and Greek in order to disabuse him of his notions about ignorant canting fanatics. When cross-questioned in court, the informers were able to debate Scriptural texts. Rosewall was found guilty but the king was persuaded not to send a preacher to the gallows on the word of ‘Hilton’s whores’.

Even in the worst of times, Hilton met with inventive counter measures. The Dissenters projected an image of martyred passivity in the face of persecution. But this belied their legal resourcefulness, and the readiness of Presbyterian apprentices to take to the streets. Constables cross-questioned Hilton’s servants, and frog-marched them to justices for confirmation. Whig justices colluded by contriving to be away from home on Sundays. This tactic became a way of making Hilton’s men run the gauntlet of hostile streets. Whig constables carried George Hilton ‘up and down the City to show him, and, with whoops and halloos to incense the rabble, cried “Informer, Informer”, to the great hazard of his life’. Sometimes the brothers needed musketeers to protect themselves.

The printing press offered oppositional tactics too. The Dissenters published The Informer’s Doom, A Letter to Hilton, the Grand Informer, and Captain Hilton’s Memoirs. The last was a ruthless exposure of the Hiltons’ insalubrious pasts: fraud, forgery, coining, underage sex, adultery, and the ‘title of Protestant as falsely assumed as that of captain’. The gang were denounced for ‘doing the Jesuits’ drudgery, persecuting à-la-mode de France’, as people who in Spain would have served the Inquisition. The Arraignment of Mr Persecution, by the Leveller Richard Overton, published forty years before, was reprinted.

A verse tract, The Informer’s Lecture to his Sons, expressed a Puritan moralist’s distaste for the victory of Church of England membership as the badge of public Christianity, instead of the conduct of an upright and spiritual life. It protested that nobody cared to rid the nation of whoring, drinking, swearing and Sabbath-breaking. In the prevailing climate,

Praying and preaching!, this is worse by far,

Than all the crying sins of Sodom are.

In England now,

The fault is greater, and the dangers more,

To teach five sisters, than to bed a score.

More subtle measures against the Hiltons lay in the intricacies of the law. Constables were warned that they were open to actions for trespass and false imprisonment if their warrants were unsound. The Quakers gathered legal opinions on the interpretation of the Conventicle Act, encapsulated in Thomas Ellwood’s Caution to Constables. It offered advice on how officers might stand their ground and ‘not be so scared’ of informers. Prosecutions were brought against the Hiltons, for the theft of a fleeing preacher’s cloak, and for defrauding the crown of its share of fines.

It was the Quaker shopkeeper George Whitehead who finally destroyed the Hilton gang, but only after the accession of Charles II’s Catholic brother, James II, who adopted a tactic of religious toleration for all groups outside the Church of England. Whitehead was one of the Hiltons’ victims. In 1683 his goods were distrained, losing chairs, looking glasses, currants and sugar. His evidence against the gang can be found in the Records of Sufferings at Friends Library.

Whitehead boldly sought audiences with the king, and, despite in the Quaker way keeping his hat on and addressing his monarch with ‘thee’ and ‘thou’, was successful at winning respites for oppressed Friends. He was convinced of James’ commitment to toleration. In 1686 he asked the king for commissioners to investigate the:

… false swearing, clandestine convictions, excessive and outrageous distress and havoc, which the informers made upon the goods and estates of shopkeepers, tradesmen, and manufacturers, many industrious families deep sufferers thereby.

James complied, and in June the Treasury solicitors took evidence at Clifford’s Inn. Whitehead gathered information on fifty cases, charging the informers with peculation, perjury and assault. Witnesses and informers were summoned, and in a hot and crowded room he held forth hour after hour. John Hilton turned up drunk, shouting that ‘he cared not a fart for the king’s commissioners’. Whitehead drily responded that ‘such drunken informers esteem themselves eminent servants to the king and church’. The solicitors confessed that ‘some great persons of the church’ tried to persuade them to protect the informers. But the indomitable Whitehead made sure the findings were properly reported. In July several of the gang were prosecuted. Some were pilloried ‘and very much pelted’. Some ‘were forced to escape and fly, and others turned to beggary’ and came ‘to miserable ends’. At least one died in jail. Eleanor Shafto was whipped through the streets.

The brothers disappeared without trace. But after the Glorious Revolution they haunted the Tory grandees who had given them succour. Many Whigs were furious that those who engaged in state terror in the early 1680s got off scot free because of William III’s pragmatic indemnity. Pressure mounted on Tories believed to have lined their pockets. Most survived, though Jenner was destroyed. Yet England’s governors could not do without informing. Some restrictions were made in an Act of 1692, but rewards to encourage private indictments were frequently increased. An Act of 1700 offered £100 to informers who secured the conviction of Catholic priests, and both a Game Act of 1722 and the Gin Act of 1736 allowed them half of the fines incurred. Moreover, the Hiltons’ chameleon mixture of law enforcement and criminality was a persistent phenomenon, exemplified in the career of ‘the thief-taker general’ Jonathan Wild.

It was the Hilton gang’s choice of targets rather than informing itself that now provoked general disapproval. In the 1690s the Societies for the Reformation of Manners made extensive use of informers, whom Roy Porter has called ‘vigilante smut hounds’. The Athenian Mercury, a magazine that answered readers’ questions, dealt with the query, ‘Whether an informer is not as much a rogue for informing against those vices that the law now takes hold on as he was for informing against the Dissenters formerly?’ The reply was that informing was honourable when directed against ‘abominable vice’, and odious only when done ‘for lucre, malice and faction’ against innocent worshippers.

The realisation of any political, religious or moral programme in Early Modern England could scarcely be achieved without informers. The enforcement of law depended upon ordinary householders who took up the office of constable. The galvanising of such officers often required the zeal of other amateurs: informers acting as freelance law enforcers, unlettered in the law but with easy access to magistrates and courts. The extent of their power over people’s lives depended, in turn, upon the legal and political resourcefulness of their victims. In the 1680s, even when the machinery of state was in the grip of a single-minded Tory elite, the law remained manipulable by all parties. It took a massive effort by a Tory zealot to narrow the yawning gap between enactment and enforcement.

The Hiltons’ campaign was the best that could be done to purge the metropolis of Dissenters. It produced four years of misery, but it was flawed by its dependence upon men and women with murky pasts and grubby motives, by the fact that the law provided an arena for contestation rather than a simple instrument of élite coercion, and by the tension that existed between vexatious zeal and communal solidarity. James II’s abandonment of Toryism and religious intolerance was the Hiltons’ downfall, yet even during their ascendancy they often faltered. Archbishop Sancroft learnt that it was difficult to build the Anglican Zion with crooked timber.

Mark Goldie is Fellow and Lecturer in History at Churchill College, Cambridge.

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