Sarah Wells was a woman from the parish of St Botolph without Aldgate in London. Not much is known of her life today, apart from the fact that she was a thief and a mother – but the criminal records of the early 18th century show that she was a strong woman who could hold her own against London’s men.
In January 1720, she appeared at the Old Bailey, charged with pick-pocketing. She was alleged to have stolen a silver watch from Robert Hoe on 16 December 1719.
The court heard that Hoe had spent some time drinking on board a ship on the Thames, and that afterwards, he made his way back into the city. On reaching Rosemary Lane, he asked someone the way to the Exchange; Sarah came up to him and said, “I am going that way and will show you”.
But instead, she led him a different, wrong, way – the way that led back towards her own lodgings. “I’ll put you right,” she told him, but he then felt for his watch, realised it was missing, and promptly accused her of stealing it, together with some money.
Sarah, realising that she had been rumbled, tried to put the watch back into his hand, but Hoe was having none of it. He tried to drag her towards a Justice’s house, but she cried out, “Everett! Everett!” This man, Everett, came over and started to beat poor, drunken Hoe. The high constable tried to get near, but somehow, Sarah managed to stop him helping for a whole hour, and was heard to say,
“Damn him for a son of a bitch! I wish I had not gave him his watch, it would have served to maintain me in Newgate. I would not have given him it again but that I did not know how to convey it off.”
In her defence, Sarah said she had been going to see her child, who was with a wet nurse, but Hoe had followed her and struck her several times, causing her to call “Murder!” He had then tried to run away, but she managed to hold him till a crowd of onlookers gathered.
The problem was that Sarah was unable to call any witnesses – not even Everett, who she claimed had only beaten Hoe out of self-defence. Because of this, and her poor reputation – being known as Calico Sarah hints at Sarah’s reputation for the theft of fabric* – she was found guilty, and sentenced to death.
But this was not the end of Sarah’s life – or not quite just yet. Exactly three years after her conviction, she was again brought before the Old Bailey. It appears that her death sentence was commuted to transportation.
One would think that might be regarded as a lucky escape, if one survived the journey to the American colonies, but not Sarah. She was now charged with having returned to England before the expiration of the time of transportation. She was now, again, sentenced to death.
This time, Sarah attempted to plead her belly – to claim that she was pregnant and should therefore not be hanged. On 8 February 1723, at the Justice Hall in the Old Bailey, she was declared quick with child, and avoided being executed with four less fortunate men. She was granted a conditional pardon in May that year.
Sarah was proactive as a thief, able to take advantage of those rendered virtually incapable through drink, and willing to take on men. She used language on the same terms, and gave as good as she got. Yet she was also willing to use her position as a woman, able to plead her belly and turn the insecurity of pregnancy into a means of prolonging her own life.
Sources: Old Bailey Online, t17200115-47 and t17230116-2; The National Archives, ref SP 44/81, f.285
*There is a brief mention of Sarah’s nickname in Lois A Chaber’s “Matriarchal Mirror: Women and Capital in Moll Flanders” (PMLA, 97:2 (1982), 212-226).Tweet