George Dewing, the keeper of the Halstead House of Correction, was a monster who raped an inmate and murdered her child. Or he was framed.
The version of the story in which he was a monster is found in A Short and Impartial Account of the Proceedings against George Dewing (1728), probably written by the Halstead justices who had prosecuted Dewing in order to set straight the “many and various reports” circulating after his trial. According to the pamphlet, the magistrates were approached on 16 March 1728 by Judith Diss, whose father Thomas was the whip-man at the House of Correction. Judith often visited the prison to help her father, she told them, and had there heard Susan Balding (or Baldwin), a prisoner committed for bastardy, “say several times to George Dewing, that she was with Child by him, and that he knew it, and how long she had to go.” Dewing had ordered Susan brought to the post and whipped, “till the Child with which she was big fell from her at the Post.” And then
she saw George Dewing the Keeper go and take the Child up in his Hands, and squeeze it very hard till the Bones were crushed; That she saw the Child alive and stir in his Hands; That when he had done this he ordered the said [Thomas] Diss to throw it into the House of Office, which he did; That the Woman upon this cryed Murder: That Dewing said, Damn you, hold your tongue, I will do it: That when this was over, the woman was carried up Stairs, and Mrs. Dewing made her some Oatmeal Caudle, and sent it by her daughter, Ann Dewing.
Eventually Susan Balding and Thomas Diss gave depositions too. Thomas admitted to seeing a baby drop, though since he left the prison yard immediately he did not witness any murder. Susan was at first evasive, but then provided details not just of the whipping but of her rape. She described how, on the day Dewing first “told her he would lie with her,” he had brought “her allowance of Victuals and Drink himself.” That day, she continued, “she had meat and better Beer than ordinary,” and that she had been “well-used” (although also raped again) up until the time she told Dewing she was pregnant with his child. “You have done what you ought not to have done,” Susan recalled saying, “I was committed here for Sin, and you have sinned with me, and ruined me; for what you have done must be known.” After that, she said, Dewing “fell out with her” and “began to use her in a barbarous manner.”
The case as told in this pamphlet has been discussed by one modern scholar, Anne-Marie Kilday, as an important instance of a man being convicted of infanticide. It would be a rich source as well for historians of pregnancy, gender and bastardy. Susan’s understanding of pregnancy as a revelation of sin, or Mrs. Dewing’s chillingly normal gesture of sending Susan an oatmeal caudle, would repay further scrutiny. What I want to focus on in this post, however, is what we can learn from the case about the intimate, often vexed relationships that the people of Halstead had to the prison standing in their midst.
The local context for Dewing’s case emerges more clearly in George Dewing’s petition for mercy, and the dozen or so depositions that are filed with it in the State Papers. These depositions seem to have been collected by a justice of the peace, William Carter, and the Reverend Mr. Wagener, the rector of Sisted. On their account, Dewing had incurred the enmity of another local JP named Mr. Vievar, who had railroaded him on false charges.
We can learn from these documents that Dewing’s troubles began not with Judith Diss’s accusation in March, but back in February 1728, when Margaret Poulton died in the House of Correction from what Dewing called “consumption” and Wagener dubbed a “taves,” a gradual wasting away of bodily organs. During the time that Margaret lay ill, Peter Wagener recalled, his friend Dewing had expressed fear that “there would be a great clamour against him” if Margaret died, “persons in his [Dewing’s] post being very obnoxious to the Idle part of the world.” Once Margaret passed, a coroner’s jury examined the body and found no reason to accuse the gaoler of wrongdoing. But during her funeral, Vievar gave an order to have the coffin opened. According to Peter Wagener, Margaret’s “naked body was exposed to a great number of people of all ages and sexes and then there was such a mobbing in the town, that the Discipline of the house of correction was wholly laid aside.” Dewing was briefly taken to Chelmsford gaol, and pelted with dirt and stones along the way, though the charges on which he was arrested were murky. He was soon released. But shortly thereafter “scurrilous ballads” were sung in Halstead, at Vievar’s instigation, to inflame the populace against Dewing, inviting anyone who had been in his custody for ten years past to accuse him. It was these ballads, one assumes, that encouraged Judith Diss to come forward with her story.
As portrayed in the depositions Wagener collected, the people of Halstead were at once egged on by Mr. Vievar and terrified by him. Several people accused Vievar of intimidating witnesses. Elizabeth Mason deposed that she had heard Daniel Smith, “one of the persons who had helped empty the privy house,” say that no infant’s corpse had been found there; when Mason asked why he did not testify on Dewing’s behalf, Smith had answered that Vievar had told him “neither he nor anybody else should go to be evidence for Mr. Dewing;” and that he was “a poor man” who feared Vievar would “do me an injury.” Susan Balding’s fear of Vievar, and perhaps of a prosecution for infanticide, was also emphasized in the testimony Wagener collected. Sarah Cooper, a weaver’s wife, described an emotional conversation she and her husband Joseph had overheard taking place between Susan and Susan’s sister, Elizabeth Pennell, in which Susan admitted that she had been frightened into giving a false oath against Dewing, saying that she feared she “must have gone to jail and suffered with Mr. Dewing if I had not done it.”
These documents give us glimpses into the lives of the protagonists in this case. Susan Balding, we learn, was not a stranger passing through town. She had a sister, Elizabeth Pennell, who was married to a weaver. The sisters’ relationship, one surmises, was strained. Elizabeth , as noted above, had interrogated Susan loudly enough to be overheard. She also confided in private to a neighbor, Ann Dister, who had come to her house to borrow some things. Ann deposed that when she mentioned to Elizabeth that Joseph Cooper had gone to tell Mr. Wagener that Susan made a false oath, Elizabeth remarked “they would have me swear the same but I’ll neither meddle nor make but my sister did say so, and said that she never had a child at the Bridewell nor ever deserved one there by Mr. Dewing.”
Tensions between Judith Diss and her father were even greater. Speaking to the JP William Carter, a Dewing ally, Thomas complained that “my own family are ready to tear me in pieces at home, and people abroad the same, because I don’t make myself an evidence against my Master, and I know nothing against him.” He also alluded disparagingly to recent warnings Judith had received “to go into service,” a statement that jibes with George Dewing’s description of Judith in his petition for mercy as a person “reputed to lead an idle and disorderly life and [who] had been newly warned by the Justices of the Peace to go out to service according to law.”
It seems, then, that families involved in the case were divided by it. Close relatives distanced themselves from Dewing’s vulnerable female accusers, but their behavior was equivocal. Despite what he told Carter, Thomas did give the JPs a deposition. Elizabeth Pennell confided in a neighbor that she thought her sister had lied, but gave no deposition to Wagener herself.
Another Halstead resident closely connected to the House of Correction was Mary Beedle, who gave Peter Wagener two depositions in support of George Dewing’s petition. In the first, she described a casual chat that had taken place between herself and James Bush, a prisoner, concerning Margaret Poulton: Bush assured Mary that “the coroner’s jury did not need to take the trouble [to examine her death], as he could have satisfied them that Margaret Poulton had had more victuals than any of them, and had done less work.” Her second statement clarifies the context in which she came to be speaking with an inmate. In the wake of the coffin-opening incident and Dewing’s first arrest, Mary was left in charge of the House of Correction. This brought her to the attention of Mr. Vievar, who had demanded that she release the prisoners. Mary had responded that she “had no power to let them out.” When Vievar asked “who gave her toleration to keep a prison,” Mary had explained that “Mrs. Dewing desired her to take care of her house and carry prisoners’ necessaries during her absence.” Vievar had flown into a “violent passion,” saying “you have done enough to be sent to Chelmsford after Dewing.”
Mary Beedle’s testimony raises fascinating questions about the role of women in running prisons: the historian wonders, along with Mr. Vievar, how Mary came to be unofficially put in charge. Her testimony also points to a nasty politics playing out in the distribution of food and work, as evidenced by James Bush’s resentment of Margaret Poulton’s preferential treatment. It might be even nastier than it looks: although the testimony was clearly offered to refute the charge that George Dewing starved Margaret to death, his giving of more victuals to Margaret than to other prisoners takes on a sinister color when we recall that Susan Balding, too, ate well during the time she was being raped.
Dewing got his pardon, but shortly thereafter he and Thomas Diss were both in the news for alleged sensational crimes. In October 1728 Diss was charged with whipping a teenage boy to death in the House of Correction. Dewing was arrested for the murder and dismemberment of “a traveling woman, his prisoner, who sold lace and muslins, about the country.” According to a story in The London Journal (15 March 1729), Dewing was acquitted of that last charge as well , but “tried on another Indictment and found guilty of a misdemeanor, in barbarously abusing one of the Prisoner in his custody, and was fined £50.”
It is hard to know if Dewing was a monster or falsely accused. Luckily, as Tom Cogswell &Alastair Bellany showed in The Murder of King James I, or as Cynthia Herrup likewise proved in A House in Gross Disorder, historians don’t need to solve past crimes in order to learn something from them.
From Dewing’s case we can learn that the House of Correction was a very significant presence in Halstead. Compared to the London prisons we usually cover on this blog, it was small and not very profitable. Essex justices in 1714 had agreed to appoint a keeper at only £20 salary per annum. But despite its size, it supplied work not just to Dewing’s family but to Thomas Diss, his daughter, and Mary Beedle. Its ex-inmates were not vagrants who moved on; rather, they were known and had family in town. The line between those who worked in the House of Correction and those confined there was thin. Mary Beedle, as we saw, engaged in gossip with a prisoner. Judith Diss, the whipman’s daughter, was “warned to go into service” — in other words, she was a step away from being an inmate herself. Whether positively or negatively, there was an intensity of connection to the house of correction among the people of Halstead, enough so that scurrilous ballads would find a ready audience, crowds would flock to see a coffin opened, and wider political struggles among the local elites would be played out through the accusation of a gaoler. It is perhaps little wonder that they felt they had a monster in their midst.
A Short and Impartial Account of the Proceedings against George Dewing, Keeper of the House of Correction at Halstead in Essex (J. Roberts, 1728)
Anne-Marie Kilday, History of Infanticide in Britain (Palgrave, 2013), pp. 69-76
Petition of George Dewing to the King (with supporting documents) TNA SP 36/6/255 folios 255-74
Christopher W. Chalklin, English Counties and Public Building, 1650-1830 (London: Hambleton, 1998), p. 161
Some newspaper accounts of the final round of accusations against Dewing and Diss are collected in Rictor Norton, Early Eighteenth Century Newpaper Reports: A Sourcebook. See also Mist’s Weekely Journal (2 September 1728); London Evening Post 128 (1-3 October 1728); Flying Post or The Weekly Medley 1 (5 October 1728); Daily Journal 2423 (14 October 1728); British Journal or The Censor 63 (15 March 1729); London Journal 502 (15 March 1729); Country Journal or The Craftsman 141 (15 March 1729) Gloucester Journal 363 (18 March 1729)