Steve's Place

1783 Getting Robert Traill out of King’s Bench

Bethnal Green was the location of Stratton's Lunatic Asylm, which had once been called Kirby's castle. This was a private institution which had various owners over the decades.
Stratton's Mental Hospital was often overcrowded, and remained so into the present century. They had patients of all ages, many young.
Courtyard at King's Bench which had been there from Medieval times and contained over two acres of swampland and multiple buildings just south of London
Much of King's Bench suffered in a massive fire in 1780, short years before Robert was imprisoned there. There were massive protests and much damage at the time.
St. Luke's had men's and women's wings and 300 small chambers with tall ceilings and small windows. There was a garden out back for those not requiring restraint.
Cribs were used for beds in institutions, with lockable tops often from 3:00 pm to 9:00 am. The cribs were lined with straw.
Staple Inn provided popular quarters for well known barristers -- lawyers and politicians of London in the 1700s.
The residence of the Robert Traill family in Portsmouth of New Hampshire before the Revolution. Traill was the first in the province to be permitted to brew and sell ale in an outbuilding next to the residence.
28 South Molton Street is the address Digges gave for his landlord. It was about 2 miles from his residence on Villiers and is today in the heart of the Mayfair shopping district. Many leading businesses have been at the address.

Mental illnesses have been around for a long time. Several cases have been stumbled upon in trying to understand life in the 1700s for Imans/Eymans, their friends and associates. A Mary Doer and a Robert Traill wound up needing help and received it from asylums of the day. Mary had suffered the loss of her mother and suffered a profound grief which lasted for months. The American Psychiatric Association declines to classify complicated grief under one year as a disorder. So far as we can know, this was likely her situation. Robert’s precise situation is difficult to discern.

Ulrich Eyman arrived at Philadelphia from Rotterdam on the HERO in October of 1784. Among ship passengers was the family of Conrath Doer, whose wife died of some ship-borne disease before even making it to the open seas. His distraught daughter sank into depression for the entire journey and was admitted to the Philadelphia Hospital upon arrival as a consequence of Captain Ralph Forster’s perhaps misleading advice. She seems though to have been well cared for though little is known of her once she was dismissed from care. We learned about Mary’s situation from a petition which he made for assistance with payment from the managers of the hospital as sited in Morton’s 1895 History of Pennsylvania Hospital 1751–1895. Context is provided from substantial Internet research.

The Captain Ralph Forster’s brother-in-law Thomas Attwood Digges was in London several years later when he was alerted to the plight of an American born thirty year old who had been released after several months from Stratton’s private lunatic asylum only to wind up in prison at King’s Bench for debt, and having most of his earthly goods stolen by a servant. We have little information for classifying Robert’s problems though he required institutionalization and seems to have been unable to function upon release, or to have fallen back into a state where even prison wardens considered him in need of hospitalization, and likely some kind of restraint. Thomas did what he could to see to care at St. Luke’s public asylum in London while trying to enlist the help of a father then serving King George III in the Bermudas. The letter paraphrased below from Thomas in London to Traill’s father in Bermuda appeared in a 1982 publication by Elias and Finch of the Letters of Thomas Attwood Digges (1742–1821). Supplemental information for providing background to the correspondence was derived through Internet research of historical and genealogical archives.

Watching After Robert Traill Jr.

Thomas Digges began correspondence with a Robert Traill Sr.[1] in November of 1782 after having become involved in the plight of his son, an American-born chap he’d known from his tavern — who suffered a mental breakdown in London and who upon release had been arrested for debts.

Digges did not know Traill but began correspondence after becoming concerned with the plight of Trail’s son, also Robert — apparently American-born. The thirty-year old son had suffered a mental breakdown in London and in addition been arrested and imprisoned for debts. Digges sent a series of letters by various routes and on alternative ships hoping that at least one letter would make it through.

London letter of March 3, 1783 (paraphrased)
To: Robert Traill, Esqr., Bermuda
Dear Sir:
I’ve written three different times to inform you of your son’s disagreeable situation and to explain the necessity of your appointing some person to look after him and obtain from his attorney (Mr. Owsley Rowley[2] of Staples Inn) his collectible assets which appear to be above 1200 pounds ($261,000 current value).
I forwarded several letters near the first of November last year with a duplicate to a friend by boat to New York asking hime to forward them on by two separate ships bound for Bermuda. I also wrote on the 23rd of November a similar letter to Powell & Hopton of Charlestown[3] and my last was February 1st by New York mail directed to you at Bermuda. I was hoping that in taking these various modes of writing that one of them would reach you. But as I’ve heard of many irregularities with letters through New York and not hearing a word from you I begin to have my fears. Therefore I’ll copy three or four of this letter and forward them in various directions most likely to reach you. I’ll leave two copies with Mr. John Brickwood (Clerk to Mr. Strettell[4], Merchant at Lyme Street), a principal agent for ships to Bermuda, and send others by the first ships going either to New York or Charlestown. I hope and trust that you will answer them at your first convenience in care of Mr. Samuel Hartley[5] Merchant of London, or in care of the Mount Coffee House[6].
Before proceeding, I want to let you know that your son is very much better in the state of his mind and perfectly well and hearty in other respects. I hope that in another month or two with quiet living and the usual care that I have seen has been taken of him that his mind will be restored among his former friends. I’m sure that’s important to you and want you know that I’m a sincere sympathizer.
As soon as he was let out of Mr. Stratton’s Private Mad House at Bethnal Green[7] last summer — a confinement which can’t be a surprise to you[8] — he was arrested for a small sum [ debts, apparently amounting to current values approximating $12,000] and put into Kings Bench[9]. This ill treatment threw him back to the disorder for which he’d been sent to Mr. Stratten’s. I’ve only known your son as a coffee house acquaintance and as a countryman whose sentiments regarding American politics I respected[10]. I’ve known him always to be a gentleman and a man of honor. I knew nothing of his background, his circumstances, or his situation in life; nor that he had been confined at Mr. Stratten’s or was then in King’s Bench.
I learned about your son’s circumstances beginning in October of last year when Coll Glover[11] told me that he had seen Robert in miserable condition at King’s bench. Glover spoke to me knowing my role in this country as an employed agent for American prisoners appointed by Congress[12] and thinking that Robert might fit the category of an American prisoner.
In any case, out of personal caring I went immediately to see Robert but won’t add too much detail to even further add to your uneasiness. He was, however in as bad a point of distress and want as he could be for having gone to that prison without a single penny or friend to visit or even ask for him. He had nothing but straw upon the flagstone floor of a lock-up room[13] and nothing to eat but scraps from the prison keeps plates.
In asking to learn more about Robert’s situation I found that the Martial of the Bench had made application to the court of Kings Bench to have Robert removed to a hospital because of the unsettled state of his mind, but no hospital would take him. Given the situation I appealed to his creditors and got all of them to forgo their demands and to agree and sign motions in order to allow him to be discharged. Since his state of mind made it dangerous for him to be going at large, I got him into quiet and comfort at Stratten’s House at Bethnal Green from about the 20th of October to the 4th of January, and at that point had him admitted to St. Lukes.[14] I’ve done everything that I could to see that he was well accommodated at St. Lukes, which is a free and excellent charity where he’s as well off as he’d be at Mr. Strattens whose expense is above a guinea a week (a guinea was one pound and one shilling then, or about $100 today).
Please trust that these arrangements are suitable. Had he been my brother or nearest friend I would have done the same. Be assured that your son is as well treated as he can be and that he is getting better fast. So much so is this the case that he is nearly well enough to be let out. I would have kept him on at Mr. Strattons in preference to his being put on charity had my finances been such as to allow me to do so. I have been exceedingly distressed when it comes to money for the past six years and in as much want as any of the American prisoners I have hared for. I have been fagging[15] in the service of the American agents at Passy (Paris) without any allowance or stipend for doing so and have generally had on hand from 5 to 600 and at time 900 and a thousand captured agents, ship captains, mates and prisoners,[16] all of them in want.
I am from the state of Maryland myself, and though better off than most Americans in England with good property in Maryland and Virginia, it’s been impossible for me to get the least remittance from it during the war.[17]
As I said before, your son’s debts do not appear to be more than 120 pounds (Roughly $26,000 in current valuation). His attorney, Mr. Rowley of Stapes Inn (with whom the father seems to have had a quarrel) has in hand bonds and notes, many of them good though apparently not immediately recoverable[18] amounting to 1200 pounds ($260,000 in current valuation).
I have tried to find friends or correspondents of yours who would take the burden a little off my shoulders but have not found anyone through Mr. Rowley, Mr. Tymmonds, Mr. Brickwood [see notes above], and others. It is not only inconvenient to me to look after your son, but at times impracticable, for over the past six months and currency pending, I have been exceedingly involved in negotiations for peace and much public business including travel three or four times to the Hague and to Paris[19] and may be sent off to America[20] before your answer can arrive back from Bermuda to England.
It is therefore essential that for your son’s welfare you appoint someone to look after him, manage affairs with his attorney. After leaving Strattons and before being put into King’s bench, he seems to have been plundered of his wearing apparel and possessions by a servant who I have never been able to catch and punish. It seems that when Robert went to prison the servant was sent to his lodging in Bond Street when the boy went to prison, though he never took a rag to King’s Bench. What few things Rowley got were taken from what little remained at the chambers before I knew anything of him and I believe most of these were sent to Mr. Stratton’s — who has acknowledged their receipt to me, and who will help Robert to them as they appear to him to be wanted. What I have been doing is paying for bed and board from the day I saw him on about the 6th of October until his return to Stratton’s on about the 20th of November, in addition to providing a new waist coat, breeches, stockings and shoes, etc. The two blue frocks his their had left Robert were considered too expensive to wash at the hospital. I have not yet settled with Mr. Stratton the charge for keeping him from the 20th of November until he was sent to St. Lukes on the 3rd of January.
Robert can be kept for twelve months at St. Lukes gratis though I was obliged to provide a bond with security through Mr. Charles Chapman of Leaden Hall Street and Mr. William Perkins of Duke Street in Adelphia[21] and 100 pounds ($21,000) finally to take him out before the expiration of the twelve months. No patient is allowed to stay longer than one year. This is also a secondary inducement for me to ask you to appoint some caretaker as soon as possible for I would not want to have these securities adding expense because of may absence.
Expecting soon to hear from you I remain your very obedient Humble Servant, Thomas Digges.


The saga of Digges involvement with the Robert Traills seems to have come pretty much to an end by the fall of 1783 — a time in which Digges was traveling a great deal through manufacturing cities of the north in the recruitment of skilled workmen and in clandestine efforts to sketch and export looms and newly invented industrial machinery. This was risky business, and interspersed with travel to the South of England where Digges seems to have been intent on transcribing volumes of notes from discussions with villagers about the genealogy of his family. He was making efforts at that time as well to explore the possibility of filing claims for inheritance of Chilham Castle, the Digges estate from ancient times.

By August the 29th, Digges had heard from Charles Steuart[22] of England that he would be making arrangements to care for his cousin’s son, and to reimburse Digges for his efforts. His correspondence had been sent in multiple copies by alternative ships, and had also been forwarded to Daniel Jennings in case he could help to get the correspondence delivered.[23] On that date he was writing back to Steuart from Brighton on the south coast of England where he was perhaps visiting among landed gentry. Digges let Steuart know of Traill’s fair condition at St. Lukes, and of Digges efforts through Mr. Stratton, keeper of the Mad House at Bethnal Green to see that Robert’s surgeon, Mr. Dunston was funded in order to provide any comfort to Robert. Digges wrote to Steuart again in November, this time from Worcester in central England. Digges had been in Liverpool for the month but had received two letters from Robert’s father in Bermuda and account balances were being communicated with a request that Steuart make payment on an enclosed bill to his landlord in London, a David Forsyth at No. 28 South Molton Street.[24]

Subsequently there was a bill to Robert Traill for medical services delivered from September 1782 – 1784 referenced in a document from Robert Forbes, A. D.s., of Bermuda dated December 22, 1784. This record found in the Whipple papers at Harvard (Robert Junior’s mother’s family) suggests that the father was taking responsibility for his son’s care.
One record at of unknown reliability suggests that a Robert Trail, born 1748 – 1751 passed away in England unmarried at an unknown date.[25] He was thought the son of Robert Traill and Mary Whipple born at Kittery of York in Maine. Other genealogical records suggest that our subjects don’t fall in a simple “Senior / Junior” pair relationship, but rather are more likely Roberts III and IV. As with so many early American genealogies, Robert Junior is rarely noted in the family histories of descendants of the Whipples and Traills.

  1. Robert Traill Sr.

    Robert Traill was a Scotsman from the Orkney Islands who migrated to Boston around 1740. He had been a merchant and was known as a worth seaman and had moved ahead in British colonial politics, serving as Collector of Customs at Piscataqua of Maine and Portsmouth of New Hampshire. He was the first person in New Hampshire licensed to brew and sell strong beer in an outbuilding behind his house known as the “Old Brewery”. He left New England to associate himself with American Loyalists in London during the early days of the war, leaving a wife and at least one daughter behind. His wife since 1748, Mary Whipple had been the daughter of another British political official at Portsmouth whose loyalties remained with the colonies. Mary’s father with a mercantile business, and as Collector of Customs and Superintendent of the Lighthouse had been a member of Continental Congress and was later a New Hampshire legislature, and a signer of the Declaration of Independence. Robert opposed the American Revolution and left, likely with his 27- year old merchant son Robert, while the remainder of the family remained in a rather distinguished house with brewery and ale house alongside.

    In London Robert joined forty-eight Loyalists who signed a pledge in fall of 1778 to George Germain, then Secretary of State for America that they would protect the country should it be invaded.

    By 1780, Robert was dispatched to the Bermudas to serve as collector for customs and seems to have left his son in London. Once in Bermuda he was also appointed in 1782 judge of the vice-admiralty where he was kept busy working through a back log of prize (piracy) cases involving over ninety American, French, and Bermudian ships. Though pro-American merchants and mariners had a great deal of influence in the Assembly of Bermuda, loyalists such as himself retained control over the most important governmental position.  ↩

  2. Owsley Rowley of Staples Inn

    Rowley was an official at Staples Inn, one of the four Inns of Court in London dating from 1585. It had once been a venue for weighing and taxing wool but in this period involved chambers for barristers (lawyers). In 1778, Owsley Rowley had been admitted to practice at the Inn.  ↩

  3. Powell & Hopton

    Robert William Powell & John Hopton were Charleston South Carolina merchants who had previously done business at the Strand in London (where Thomas resided on Villars Street). They had also been partners of Samuel Brailsford, merchant of Bristol and South Carolina, whose family had been the largest slavetraders of the day. Samuel took many British-owned ships as prize off of George in piracy partnerships involving Henry Laurens, who would serve as President of Congressional Congress and be captured in London and put to the Tower of London for a period. Laurens was considered by King George III and his Ministers among the four most important Americans in terms of their capacity to represent the colonies, though Laurens would participate in no diplomacy proposed to him which aimed to circumvent Benjamin Franklin. Following the war, Samuel Brailsford succeeded in one of the first U.S. Supreme court decisions which held that the Treaty of Paris of 1783 did not provide international law invalidating his and Laurens seizure of British ships. Four years following Digges 1782 letter copy to Powell and Hopton, hoping thereby to reach Traill in Bermuda, the South Carolina partnership went bankrupt.  ↩

  4. John Strettell

    John Strettell was one of the most important merchants in the Canadian fur trade before 1786 when he died three years after this letter. His father had also been an important Quaker merchant of London though he migrated to Philadelphia and became Mayor of Philadelphia. The business was that of a commission merchant — akin to a bank — who provided British manufactured trade goods to American merchants on credit and sold the goods that customers sent to pay their debts. He had cornered much of the business of the Indian commissioners allowed to trade with Native Americans in addition to the Canadian fur business where by 1761 he had secured Privy Council permission to send gun power for trading for furs. Among British merchants, the firm had taken a rather strong stand against the Stamp Act. Like other London Quakers, Strettell took an interest in charities such as purchasing potatoes and fish for London poor during the exceptionally hard winters of 1767 and 1777. From the beginning of the Revolutionary War, the firm had made strong donations on behalf of American prisoners of war in England — the sort of charity that Thomas Digges was coordinating. During the war, Strettell maintained business with Canadian traders and took about half of the North West Company when it was reorganized in 1784 — the next year from this letter. John Brickwood, then serving as clerk for Strettell had returned to London offices from years of work as an East India employee, taking over Strettell’s business as the latter’s health faded. Reorganizing partnerships in his name, and sometimes that of Thomas Pattle, also with considerable East India experience, the firm remained prominent well into the 1800s.  ↩

  5. Samuel Hartley

    Samuel Hartley was a prominent merchant of London and Liverpool. He owned ships often in partnership with a number of other merchants, more than a few of which were taken as prize during the wars of the 1760s and 1770s. He was a linen draper of Kent and correspondent with Benjamin Franklin. Active in African and West Indian trade (including slaves), Hartley seems often to appear in Digges correspondence as on secret mercantile expeditions in Paris. Digges provided a letter of recommendation for him to Franklin in 1780 — most likely in an effort to secure passports for illegal supplies shipments to the colonies about which Franklin may himself have been deceived. Samuel was a cousin of David Harley — a prominent pro-American British politician of the day and an agent of the Minister Lord North. David had been a close personal friend of Franklin and worked tirelessly over decades to craft peace proposals with the colonies which would end the Revolutionary War with autonomy but some sort of arrangement short of full independence. All of his proposals were ultimately rejected by Franklin and Adams for requiring that America terminate the agreements with France which provided it not only funds but political leverage among the old adversaries — Britain and France. Digges seems to have had a rather complex relationship with Samuel Harley, and it’s likely that Hartley was a source of personal loans which Digges could never repay. Even following Digges return to Maryland in the next decade, Samuel and prior ‘friends’ of Digges were pursuing relief from Thomas’ obligations. In one case they had even maneuvered Virginia courts in order to take possession of Digges lands without Digges knowledge of the court actions against him. Once he counter-sued in Maryland courts, proceedings took many years and involved Digges contending with the uncle of Francis Scott Key, author of the Star Spangled Banner. Samuel Hartley seems to have been involved in other litigation, with traces of litigation related to overcharging cargos transports out of London for Guadalupe in 1782 being pursued. We’ve provided description above of the Mount Coffee House, the second destination which Thomas recommends to Traill as a possible destination for correspondence.  ↩

  6. Mount Coffee Shop

    The Mount Coffee House at 78 Grosvenor Street, Grosvenor Square was a favorite tavern and club — particularly among wits and men of letters though also new lawyers and politicians of the day. This was the haunt, for instance, of Laurence Sterne, the Irish novelist and Anglican clergyman who had written twenty years before “The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shanty”. The house was owned by John Westbrook, who was the father of one of two wives of Shelley, the major English Romantic Poet, who secondly married Mary Shelley, who would write Frankenstein. Westbrook had made a fortune keeping the Mount Coffee house. Coffee houses in these days which prospered generally did so by selling wines and liquors. Some establishments were seen as barely respectable, though The Mount was considered to be “of good account” and was well known for it’s lavish dining. By the time Thomas Digges and Robert Traill were members or guests, ‘The Mount” had been celebrated for over forty years. The house depicted in the image on nearby Upper Chapel Street was the Westbrook residence in 1802 and perhaps before that.  ↩

  7. Stratton’s Mad House

    Stratton’s Mad House: This private facility for pauper lunatics took many names: Warburton’s Bethnal Green of East London, Bethnal Green Asylum, Bethnal House. Situated on Cambridge Heath Road (south side) near junction of Bethnal Green Road and present site of Bethnal Green Underground its was an asylum from 1727 to 1920. The Elizabethan Bethnal House (Kirby Castle or the Blind Beggar’s House) faced west onto the green at Bethnal Green. In 1727 it was leased to Matthew Wright and used as a private madhouse. In 1754 it belonged to Eleanor Wright (his widow), then George Potter (1755–1780) and Christopher Potter (1772–1780). James Stratton seems to have run the madhouse business from before 1770. Thomas Warburton bought the Bethnal Green business from Stratton executors in 1800.

    Near 1800, the large timber-framed mansion built near 1570 had been whitewashed and was often called White House. It had originally been built on nearly nine acres by John Kirby, a rich merchant and was then known as Bednall House or Kirby’s Castle. It took many owners and managers over the years, and was sometimes known as Wright’s Madhouse. Generally it received paupers from many part of London and surrounding counties sent by parishes which were usually billed weekly costs. Generally it had over 100 residents, though by 1815 it had grown to contain 275 inmates and it’s conditions were scandalous enough to trigger Parliamentary Select Committee hearings. Beds were so crowded together that they almost touched. Sometimes two or three patients had to share a bed. Many slept naked in unheeded rooms and most were chained to their beds. The straw they slept on was usually soiled and infested with vermin. The low ceilinged rooms they slept in were steeped in the stench of their excrement. Investigations again in 1827 found miserable conditions with staffing at a ratio of one member per 50 inmates. At that time, patients who were incontinent at night were made to sleep naked with arms and legs chained in cribs filled with start and just a blanket for covering. Inmates in these conditions were often secured from 3 o’clock in the afternoon until 9 o’clock the following morning. On weekends, inmates would be taken to the yard, their excrement mopped with cold water. Parliament required medical officers after 1828. Following 1832 when a cholera outbreak affected 100 patients better regimes were established with heating, water closes, better furnishings and ventilation, even clothing and improved cleanliness accompanied far more humane staffing circumstances. By 1835 evan a library had been established with 300 books and regular religious services were held on Sundays.  ↩

  8. Digges presumes that Traill Sr. was aware of Robert’s problem

    This statement is interesting, and some context of the timing considers what else we know of the father’s career. It’s been said that Traill (Sr.) had abandoned his family in New Hampshire at the time of the Revolution as his anti-rebel sentiment disagreed rather strongly with that of his wife and her family, who were also key British appointees in New Hampshire, though aligned with the rebel cause. Robert Sr. Returned to England in 1775 and was not appointed to the Customs House in Bermuda until 1782 or so. By April of that year, Traill was authoring correspondence dated from the Custom House there to Lord North, Minister to King George III in outlining the importance to Britain of the Bermuda Islands for commerce. Conditions were fraught on the islands with much pro-American sentiment among the populace and Assembly, though key government posts remained in British hands. At the time there was a large number of ships both French and American in Bermuda which had violated trade prohibitions and been taken as prize by British cruisers for prize. In addition to his responsibilities as toll collector, Trail was assigned an British Admiralty Court judgeship in an effort to expedited settlement of a backlog of prize claims. This letter, written in March of 1783 is describing Robert Junior’s release the previous summer from Mr. Stratton’s Private Mad House at Bethnal Green — which would have been in the middle of 1782. It seems likely that Robert Senior had left for Bermuda early in that year, at which time Robert Junior had likely already become an inmate at Bethnal Green. Little is said in Traill genealogy and history — or that of his wife — about this son who most likely had gone to England with his father at the age of 27 or so in seven years earlier in 1775.  ↩

  9. King’s Bench

    King’s Bench was a prison in the south of London which had existed from medieval times until it was closed in 1880. This was an area of massive old structures encircled by high walls with sharp spikes. It sat in an area of damp reclaimed marshland on the south side of the Thames. There were four jails within about a two acre area. Traill had been imprisoned in a jail of prisoners sequestered for bankruptcy, defamation, or other misdemeanors.

    With the prison were industries including brewing, hat-making, and leather work. Some inmates who paid fees to the Marshall were provided liberty to live within a three square mile area and visit prison each day. There were other ways in which in some inmates could move about. Like other prisons of the time, the prison yard had a coffee shop, two pubs, butchers/ stands, candle shops and even a surgery. There were open air markets on some days where wares were hawked. The neighborhood was busy, smelling dusty, and bustling.

    Prisoners were a strange mix of debtors and crooks with everything from nobles, parson, lawyers, farmers, shopmen, gamblers, horse dealers, butchers, and beggars. Charles Dickens wrote some of his scenes though they were describing the place in 1860 — nearly a century later. Dickens had actually lodged nearby and recorded his impressions of the inmates, many of whom were dying of what he called ‘dry rot’.

    The old structure here were often targeted during uprisings, being burned in 1381 and again in 1450, with parts of the building being replaced in 1758. In June of 1780, a short period before Traill’s imprisonment, the “Gordon Riots” had involved burning out large parts of the prison, some of which was rebuilt by 1782. Those riots had involve massive Protestant protests at the king’s loosening the repression of Catholics and excluding papists from needing to swear oaths of allegiance or joining the army. The idea of tolerating Catholics was deeply resented and led to crowds of 50,000 storming on the House of Commons and running riot for five days with many violent attacks on homes and chapels, then prisons and the Bank of England itself were attacked. Over a thousand descended on Newgate prison armed with clubs, bludgeons and crows to liberate prisoners.

    The prison had a reputation for being dirty, overcrowded, and prone to outbreaks of typhus. Debtors were obligated to provide their own bedding, food and drink which were available only at inflated prices. Sometimes as many as five or even six hundred patients would be squeezed into a little over two hundred cells, most of them nine feet square. The women and children, often of debtor families lived among them. Rich prisoners sometimes lived in one of eight ‘state rooms’, but most lived by begging or charity of their fellows, selling off any clothes or possessions as needed in order to keep from starving. No medical aid, bedding, or allowance of food was provided for those without resources, though the poor often took turns proffering begging boxes to those who might help. In cramped cells, prisoners often resorted to paying cell mates to sleep elsewhere on benches of the pub or on the floor or seats of the chapel. Criminality and prostitution were rampant, and death not infrequent, especially among those who rather than submit to degradation shut themselves up in their cells and became so emaciated as to produce terminal disorders and an ed to their miserable experience.

    Prisoners were at times sent to King’s Bench for political reasons. In 1768, for instance, the radical politician John Wilkes had been sent there for writing an article critical of King George III which had produce a riot in which five people were killed. Wilkes would have been housed in conditions similar to those described although he had been an elected member of Parliament from Middlesex. He survived and was none the less popular for his advocacy on behalf of the colonies though he was unknown outside of his own country. Wilkes succeeded in becoming elected the Mayor of London, where politicians tended to be liberal, and donated excess from his campaign fund to Thomas Atwood Digges who was destitute and doing what he could on behalf of prisoner’s of war without adequate financial assistance from the colonies or the American agents in Paris. In Dickens’ David Copperfield, Mr. Micawber was imprisoned for debt in the King’s Bench Prison. In Herman Melville’s Billy Budd, John Claggart is arraigned at King’s Bench.

    As a debtors’ prison, King’s Bench was largely run by prisoners themselves. There was a good deal of extortion by prison officers. There are no rooms for sick prisoners, nor to separate the small number incarcerated there for capital or high crimes and offenses.

    In March of 1783 while Robert Traill was in prison, The King’s Bench court next door was hearing trials related to the “Zong massacre”. In 1781, a Dutch slave trading ship out of Liverpool had taken insurance on the lives of slaves as cargo. The 110 ton square-backed ship had boarded 442 slaves from the Cape Coast Castle at Ghana — twice the number of slaves that it should have carried and was staffed by 17 sailors acquired off shore since British sailors generally refused to work on such ships. The unskilled captain was apparently ill and failed to replenish water supplies near Tobago for unknown reasons, and it never became clear who, if anyone was in charge of the ship at the time. Having run low on potable water following navigational mistakes near Jamaica, the crew threw 133 African slaves overboard to drown, partly in order to ensure the survival of the rest of the ship’s inhabitants, and partly in order to cash in on the insurance.

    A freed slave by the name of Olaudah Equiano brought news of the massacre to anti-slavery activists who worked unsuccessfully to have the ship’s crew prosecuted for murder. The attention drawn to the case stimulated the development of an abolitionist movement, in which Olaudah Equiano, having written an autobiography became a popular figure and prominent author. Equiano credited Thomas Atwood Digges as having been a mentor for his writing, and in fact Digges at least wrote a letter of recommendation for the book which was regularly republished over decades. Having been born in Africa and receiving the benefits of a Quaker family in England, the author was sold into slavery and passed hands through the Caribbean into the colonies before returning to England as a safer place for a free black to attempt to survive. Equine’s memoirs are credited as being among the first slave narratives among American Black Historians.  ↩

  10. Family Splits

    Digges seems to be alluding to pro-American sentiments which he shared with his coffee house friend, though these sentiments would have been at considerable variance with those of the father, suggesting that the two of them may have had an estranged relationship in London. Many families were torn in such ways during this period, including that of Benjamin Franklin then serving in Paris as an American representative and sponsor of Digges work on behalf of prisoners in London. Though in strong protest of British foreign policies, Franklin had long maintained a position of supporting American autonomy short of crown independence during early period of the war. His son, however, appointed Governor of New Jersey had chosen to become a Loyalists, with Franklin severing the relationship and never speaking with his son for the rest of his life. When sent to Paris to represent the colonies, however, Franklin had introduced himself to an out-of-wedlock grandson (William Temple Franklin) by his estranged son and had taken the boy with him to Paris for education, and to serve for many years as his personal Secretary.  ↩

  11. Coll Glover

    Coll Glover. Unknown, though John Adams then of Baltimore in 1777 noted his intention to make a “Coll. Glover” a Brigadier. That Coll Glover, however, was commander of a Massachusetts Regiment involved in retaining British prisoners taken to Massachusetts. This would be a logical person for Digges to know in his prisoner exchange work, though there’s no evidence of General John Glover having been in London in order to see Trail at King’s Bench. This Glover, however, was involved with prisoner’s exchange and would have been a logical contact for court authorities in treating with a prisoner with American background. His role may have involved diplomatic negotiations which might have conceivably brought him to London.  ↩

  12. Digges self-described role with Americans

    The suggestion that Digges was an “employed agent” of Continental Congress is not confirmed in other description of his role or arrangement — even later in this letter. He had been nominated at a tavern by a group of American friends and British politicians to raise solicitations in aid of prisoners, and he had been proposed to Congress as a potential diplomat for posting to some European country by the Lees of Virginia. He had aspired for an appointment as Secretary to one of the American representatives in Paris and corresponded diligently with the aim of being accepted to such a position. There are however, many statements throughout the Digges correspondence of disappointment with lack of formal posting, and evidence of his own financial distress. Though he had properties in Virginia and Maryland, he’d been cut off from access to financial support from home and was known to borrow rather heavily from friends. He was socially prominent and credited for his efforts, though it’s doubtful that he was employed. There have been accounts through history of his having been a double-agent in the employ of British authorities, though subsequent release of extensive and fairly reliable documentation of Ministerial accounts for the period suggest that Digges was never in the employ of British authorities. Chances are best that this self-description of his role as an Agent of the colonies involved a bit of “puffery”.  ↩

  13. Lock-up rooms were use for disorderly inmates.  ↩
  14. St. Luke’s of London

    Saint Luke’s, an institution which survives to this day, was founded in London in 1751 as an asylum for pauper lunatics. It’s founder, renowned in his day as an eccentric humorist, believed that patients should be sequestered and not exposed to public view. The facility was built with small single cells for 300 patients with high walls with small windows toward their tops, no heating, and loose straw on wooden bedsteads. The hospital with men and women’s wings had grown over the years and was often overcrowded. It had moved by 1786 to the facilities shown in the image. No doubt these had lockable open lath tops for use with those requiring restraint. Generally the hospital, established by philanthropic physicians, promoted a progressive treatment philosophy avoiding manacles and other restraint where it was possible to do so. Medical treatment consisted primarily of cold plunge baths which it hoped would shake lunatics out of their insanity.

    Behind the main building were mens’ and womens’ gardens where less disturbed inmates could volunteer to work and get exercise.  ↩

  15. ”Fagging” in pursuit of patronage

    “Fagging” as used at the time implied assuming a subordinate role in accomplishing things for one’s superiors, as a freshman was often made to do by seniors at boys schools. In an age where position was only earned at the recommendation of others, volunteer work as what we’d think of as “unpaid interns” was common.
    The six years Digges is referring to would have included most of his duration in London from 1777 to 1783 and his involvement in public roles on behalf of prisoners and diplomatic roles involving prisoner exchange with other countries coordinated through American representatives in London and Paris, and in his clandestine work helping prison escapees find safe harbor and passage home through third countries. This was nearly the curation of the long Revolutionary War. Digges had also traveled extensively throughout manufacturing cities of England and Ireland encouraging skilled artisans to migrate to the colonies and involving industrial espionage in appropriating looms and advancing technologies — as ways of fostering American industrial expansion.  ↩

  16. American Prisoners of War in England

    Prisoners from the beginning of the war were often merchant ship captains and crews captured anywhere from European shores to Newfoundland and brought to London for prison — at Newgate or even the Tower of London, or in large outdoor pens and in miserable conditions, though the conditions quickly evoked protests of British friends of the Americans. One by one, or in groups, many prisoners broke prison and with the aid of local church volunteers walked long paths on dark nights to Villiers Street of London where Digges lived for safe keeping. Digges provided room and board, often requiring him to secure safe houses aside from his own. Alone at nights he would often walk the docks of East London where shore patrols were less frequent to find small boats and fishermen who might be trusted to help escapees make their way to Calais on the French coast, and usually from there to Paris for paperwork, or directly to Holland for ship passages back to the colonies. The larger numbers Digges quotes likely refer to prisoner swaps which he arranged wherein Britain would receive equal numbers of their own soldiers shipped back to England for those released from it’s prisons. Benjamin Franklin created considerable tension with French ministries which were none too anxious to provoke war with England by coordinating American and Dutch privateering on European coastal waters with the goal of increasing the number of captured Britons who could be traded back for the release of American prisoners. France had never wanted to engage in a war with England again, though in promoting these skirmishes, Franklin was essentially testing the French commitment to some form of partnership with America.  ↩

  17. Digges Finances

    Indeed Thomas Atwood Digges enjoyed the advantages of a good education and came from one of the most prominent Catholic families of Maryland. He anticipated an inheritance, though he had been expelled from home and country for some unknown infraction as a young man and was unaware that his father had done his best to disinherit him from paternal inheritance. He would not be challenged to undertake an effort to overthrow related Maryland court decisions for another decade, though his standing in the family was more perilous than he may have realized, and likely accounts in part for his difficulties in securing remittances from Maryland.

    Digges lived well enough to travel often and meet the intellects and politicians of his day. He was known widely in London as the “handsome American” and participated in fashionable clubs where he maintained a widespread network of informed collaborators, particularly among radical thinkers and politicians, and those committed to helping America in its quest. These were often second level socialites though nearly all wound up in national biographical archives. Some ultimately moved to the colonies, or had migrated into France and participated during early stages in the French Revolution. Often pressed for income he seems to have borrowed heavily from friends and may not always have been faithful with payments in return. Near this period he was taking on increasing legal work on behalf of some clients — an activity he maintained upon returning to the colonies where he had a sufficient practice among landed gentry of Maryland to lunch often with the first five Presidents of the United States.  ↩

  18. Financial Disarray

    War was devastating to the income of many merchants and professionals. Trade was severely restricted, though hard-to-trace illegal shipments undoubtedly occupied considerable effort and circumspection. Credit obligations due to British merchants had been unpaid from before the Revolutionary War. In an age before banks, people carried paper — bills of trade which were credits against the accounts of those who had financial credibility. In an age before corporations, bankruptcy of individuals and more often business “partnerships” (essentially “limited liability associations” of seven or so years duration) were common.

    Colonials had often considered the terms of obligations to their London merchants usurious and demanded that colonial courts cease collections on the part of colonists — and especially southern planters — who had experience dramatic economic problems in the early 1770s. Resentment of British merchants who were seen as exploitative in retaining the colonies in dependency were seen by some as major components of the rebellious mood in the colonies. Planters of Virginia and Maryland often owed ten years of production to their merchants while British policies reinforced dependency by precluding the manufacture of goods in the colonies.

    So there was a lot of paper around, though no one was quite sure whether or not it could be collected on. Many “Loyalists” who had returned to England had abandoned properties in the colonies, and the security of their titles was very much in question. Though by 1786 many Loyalists began returning to the colonies to claim title, many lost land through state appropriations of their estates which were clear violations of the terms of settlement of the Revolutionary War. At the time, economies of the states were depressed, little industry or manufacturing had yet developed, and indebted states appropraited the property of Loyalists and auctioned it to land speculators of the day in order to manage state budgets. States took little head of international settlements which had been arrived at by a weak Colonial Congress.  ↩

  19. Digges as British Representative to the Americans

    At several points during Digges long stay in London, British officials had reached out to him in order to convey tentative peace proposals for terminating the Revolutionary War. The British were well aware of Digges intimate familiarity with the Americans at Passy and throughout the American support community in London. Digges was well known for having been elected by a group of over 100 subscribers to an early and very successful fund raised on behalf of American prisoners of war, and though as an American citizen, having sworn an oath to Franklin, he was not authorized to negotiate with British governmental committees, he was often called upon to convey messages, and sometimes provided discretion toward shaping proposals on the crown’s behalf. This intermediary role has often been misunderstood by historians — influenced by Benjamin Franklin’s distrust of him, and a fear that he was a double agent in the employ of the crown. (None of that proved to be the case, though many of Franklin’s closest staff were spies.)

    Peace efforts as early as 1778 by Digges were taken in coordination with David Hartley, a key British politician and close friend of Benjamin Franklin. Hartley himself sometimes made it away from London business to visit Franklin, and given the ubiquitous spying of the day, often arranged secret night time meetings in the nude and at the steamboats/spa which resided just outside the walls of the Passy Hotel where the American commission was housed.

    Digges peace efforts on behalf of the Lord North Administration in 1782 were his last such efforts and turned out to be markedly unsuccessful. There were a variety of reasons for their failure. First, Franklin had accused Digges of misusing funds set aside for prisoners and was unwilling to trust him. John Adams was in those days new to his position on staff with the American commissioners. He had replaced Silas Deane who had been returned to the colonies for corruption and the considerable conflict known to have existed among the delegation. Adams had been sent without instructions as to his role or much help in knowing how to proceed. With Digges, he simply deferred to Franklin’s distrust and would not even communicate in person with him in the absence of a recording Secretary. Digges may have been ill advised to undertake the responsibilities of inquiring on behalf of crown authorities, though as we’ll see, he had his own reasons for doing so. But more than anything, peace proposals of the British always started with the stipulation that in order to recognize or deal with the Americans they would first need to divorce themselves from any agreement with their arch-enemy France — and Franklin in particular was never willing to do so.

    Nonetheless, these were confusing times, and the British were not at all certain how to proceed. While the North Administration was embattled with British resistance to it’s continued war efforts, things had become even more complex from their point of view given that a second war front had opened for them — and one far more disturbing to the British than the fate of the colonies. In addition to Franklin, Adams, and Lee in Paris, with Thomas Jefferson soon to be added to the delegation, Henry Laurens, past President of the Continental Congress had been sent to Europe as an Ambassador to Holland and the British were threatened by the move. From the colonial perspective the alliance with France was providing important aid, more was needed, and Laurens was sent to conduct secret negotiations with Holland.

    Arriving to port in England, Laurens boat was seized by a British privateer. As the pirate ship was still in pursuit, Laurens had heaved overboard an oiled leather pouches which contained his correspondence and proof of a pending treaty with Holland which would prove rude news to the British. Sadly the case had been so well oiled that it didn’t sink and officials apprehended all the proof that they needed, triggering a new war between England and Holland and producing charges of treason for Laurens. Laurens was put to the Tower of London, little news of it ever making it to the colonies. Digges had been alerted and was doing what he could though the Ministry had him locked down in cramped and unsuitable quarters and disallowed exercise and visitors.

    This side war between Britain and Holland just as the war with America was winding down preoccupied the English people far more than did colonial disturbances. John Adams had recently been posted by Congress to Paris offices, replacing Silas Deane who had been recalled and suffered accusations of corruption in skimming the European munitions trade to the colonies.

    The North Administration, increasingly desperate to come to terms toward a conclusion of the war was not sure who, if anyone in Europe, could speak on behalf of Congress, and authorized Digges to undertake mission to find out. For it’s side, the North Administration had decided that it would take as authoritative representations by Laurens, John Adams, or Benjamin Franklin. At the point of nominating Digges to the role, British authorities were unaware of Franklin’s distrust of him, though they abandoned support from him upon his return and paid little attention to his report. A key consideration for Digges undertaking this initiative was a bargain that he’d stuck with the Secretary of American affairs who had broken into Digges residence and stolen all of his papers. In compensation for his efforts, Digges had been assured that he’d have access to the account books and records which he needed in order to make an effort to account for his prisoner expenditures.

    The previous year, Franklin, who admitted having not reviewed his correspondence in the matter, accused Digges of misusing funds which he had been authorized to spend on behalf of prisoners in London. For these accusations he was relying on correspondence by a British merchant much in competition with Digges for acknowledgement of a role with the prisoners. The prisoner work in London at this point was shifting from working with the prisoners and helping them to escape to the kind of negotiations of prisoner swaps which British officials would only pursue with a British citizen. For these purposes, the American merchant William Hodgson who had turned Loyalist fit the bill, and so he slowly became the focus for coordinating Franklin’s prisoner relief in London. Hodgson had proven in other contexts to be a very difficult man to work with, and Franklin himself had had to intercede at interpersonal disputes within Franklin’s secret “Group of 13” London leaders in order to keep the peace. Hodgson, like others on Franklin’s staff seems to have been a compulsive gambler on the London Stock exchange and it may have been unmanageable personal debts which soon drove him to an unexpected suicide.

    The truth, falsity, or exaggeration of any claims of malfeasance on Digges part were never fully resolved, though his reputation had been maligned in widespread distribution of Franklin’s accusatory comments. Digges had written to Franklin a number of times assuring that it was best for them to meet in person, at which time Digges could make a full accounting of all expenditures, though there were unaccountable delays in setting such a meeting. What seems not to have been disclosed to Franklin, nor accounted for by historians of Digges, was that at some time in this period, British authorities had gotten onto his clandestine activities, invaded his premises and seized all of his records.

    Digges on this round was representing the North administration at the strong recommendation of the key politician Robert Penn, the grandson of William Penn who had long served as the proprietor of Pennsylvania. Neither Penn nor the North administration seems to have been aware of Digges disfavor in Franklin’s eyes at the time of his posting to travel — though they had certainly shunned him by 1783 once they found out upon Digges unsuccessful return to London. The authorities were aware however, from his purloined papers of deep correspondence between Digges and the American representatives. Rather than employing Digges, as some historians suspected, they agreed to release his papers once he had completed his mission and filed a ministerial report of his mission.

    Of the four potential American representatives party to the 1782 North proposals for peace, Laurens would not participate on the grounds that he rejected involvement in any secret negotiations, Adams then in Holland would not meet Digges without a secretary recording proceedings since he did not trust a thing that he said, and deferred in any case to Franklin in Paris, and Franklin refused to hear Digges out.

    By the time Digges had returned to London, having been rebuffed by Adams in Holland and Franklin in Paris, he found that the North Administration had been replaced. The report of his findings which was presented to the new government was distrusted, though subsequent analysis evidenced that every bit of what he’d said had been true. Archive stores for the new ministry were opened to Digges that he might retrieve his papers though their offices were poorly organized and unsupervised. Digges seems to have hauled out not only his own records, but carriages full of crates which included the record books of the key merchants of St. Eustatius in the Caribbean — the main Dutch free trade port through which most illegal arms and shipments from Europe throughout the war had been shipped. This trove of records, stored safely outside of London precluded British courts from proceeding among a host of merchants who had been involved in illegal trade throughout the war. The papers fumed for weeks at the lost records and impossible prosecutions, and though Digges was accused of having been the culprit responsible for their loss, nothing was ever proven against him.  ↩

  20. To America?

    Digges suggested in his letter to Traill that that he may be sent to America. Likely this was an optimistic assumption that the peace proposals he was carrying to Paris might receive a more favorable reception and that he might be nominated to convey them to Continental Congress in the colonies. Digges himself would not return to the colonies for another decade or so — perhaps in an effort to restore his reputation given the unresolved accusations of Franklin.  ↩

  21. Chapman and Perkins

    Mr. Charles Chapman of Leaden Hall Street may have been the shoemaker of that name and street who went bankrupt two years later in March of 1785. Adelphi was a small district in the City of Westminster of London. This was a block of houses between The Strand where Thomas Digges resided on Villiers Street and the River Thames. Drake Street no longer exists in that small cluster of avenues, though in the 1885 in the Lancet General Advertise was an advertisement for a business at No. 6 of Duke Street which served as medical agents and arbitrators of medical practices and lunatic asylums. Digges may well have relied on services such as these for assistance in helping to get Traill transferred between institutions.  ↩

  22. Charles Steuart

    Charles Steuart — Steuart had gone from Scotland to the colonies before the Revolution and become a storekeeper, rising among British appointees in the colonies to become surveyor general of customs and receiver general of customer for Britain in Boston. In 1762 while serving in Virginia he’d headed off a mob of unruly settlers who had beet a groups of Spanish naval officers, and was rewarded by appointment to the post of Receiver General of His Majesty’s customs for all of North America though these appointments meant nothing by the time of the Revolution. Charles had a brother James, an author of the period, and brothers who were lead Scottish merchants of Tobago and Granada. Steuart had returned to England well before the Revolution and received his mail through Mr. Knight’s Apothecary at Pimlico, a small London district.

    After moving to England, Steuart became famous for his involvement in a prominent court case involving slavery. Steuart had acquired a manservant named Somerset in 1749 with whom he returned to England though in 1771, the slave ran away in London. Recaptured, Steuart had his slave imprisoned and stowed on a ship for Jamaica having provided the captain instructions to sell him there. Abolitionists having heard of the situation mobilized court actions which put the slave to custody of the court pending a decision in which a precedent was set when the bench decided that a slave in England (where slavery was illegal) could not be forcibly returned to the colonies (where it was). While this case has been misconstrued throughout history as calling for an end to slavery, it did set a precedent that encouraged abolitionists worldwide. Steuart later retired and returned to Edinburgh of Scotland.  ↩

  23. Daniel Jennings

    Daniel Jennings of Antigua and Barbuda, represented quite an old family on Antigua, his likely father George having been married as part of the Parish of St. Johns in 1722 and living in a small settlement of the family’s name.  ↩

  24. 28 South Molton Street

    It’s not known whether or not Digges maintained his residence at 21 Villiers of the Strand during this period though he was traveling considerably, with correspondence originating for this and the next ten years from many locations — from the South of England where he may have been researching prospects for making inheritance claims on Chilham Castle, through industrial districts where he was recruiting skilled tradesmen and copying inventions of weaving and other industrial equipment in order to benefit economic development in the colonies, and in Ireland, where for a period he was apparently in debtor’s prison. Digges’ landlord has not been located, though his address — two miles from Villiers — is an interesting one. The address on South Molton is very famous these days on a very narrow lot into Davies Street and Bond at Oxford Street — the busiest shopping thoroughfare in the heart of the Mayfair Shopping District. No doubt the property has a long history of commercial and residential tenancies. The site has been the location of a very old pub as well as the flagship store for China’s largest retailer in London. (See image)  ↩

  25. Genealogical Notes

    One unreliable genealogical record notes a Robert Traill dying in London during 1785, which would have been only a few short years following our story. This account, however, suggests that Robert had been born at the Orkney Islands from which his father had originated, suggesting likely confusion in records. Additional support for the suggestion that this record is likely in error is found in records suggesting that Robert Senior died in Bermuda either in 1785 or 1786. A Duncan Stuart was appointed as Collector of Customs at Bermuda in place of Robert Traill, Esq. in July of 1786, making the latter date more probable.  ↩

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