In the spring of 1812, the parish church at Newnham-on-Severn was in need of a new curate. The Revd Mr Parsons held the perpetual curacy there, but he resided in Oxford, so he employed a curate to perform his duties in the parish. The former holder of this position had resigned in March 1812, and so Revd Parsons advertised for a replacement. He soon received a response from one Thomas White, a clergyman in his forties, who was sent to Newnham to meet Parsons’ agents, solicitors Thomas Tovey and John James. White told them that he held a living in Ireland, but when they asked to see his credentials, he said that all his papers were still over there and it would take some time for them to be shipped over. Although Tovey and James had some doubts about the new recruit, Parsons had approved of him, so he was allowed to take up his duties at the church, starting on 22 March.
On 17 April, White told the churchwarden, Job Thatcher, that he was short of money. He asked Thatcher if he would give him £30 cash in return for a bill of exchange, bearing the name of a Mr William Jennings, who White said was his agent in Dublin. Thatcher agreed and gave him the cash.
On 15 May, Tovey and James, who had grown increasingly suspicious about White, demanded to see his references and proof of his qualifications. White said his documents still had not arrived from Dublin and gave the address of Mr Jennings in Dublin, to write to him themselves. Four days later, on 19 May, White disappeared. Shortly afterwards, the bill of exchange the churchwarden had been given was refused payment. In addition, Tovey and James received a letter from Dublin, in which Mr Jennings stated that he knew Thomas White, but was not his agent and had nothing to do with his financial affairs. On making enquiries in Newnham, it was discovered that several parishioners had loaned White money in the short time he had been their curate.
Thomas Tovey and John James were keen to find their sham curate, but it was not until the summer of 1813 that he was sighted on several occasions in Bath, Bristol and Worcestershire. Tovey and James finally caught up with him in Worcester, on 29 November. He was removed from there to the Kings Head in Gloucester, where several of those who had known him as Thomas White came to identify him. He pretended not to recognise any of them, but later admitted to being the person known as Thomas White in Newnham. He said that his real name was Richard Williamson and that he came from Ashley in Wiltshire. It later transpired that his real name was Robert Peacock, but he bore the aliases Thomas White, Richard Williamson, Richard Thomas, William Whitefield and William Whitmore.
While Peacock waited in Gloucester gaol for his trial, more was discovered about what he had been doing in the time between leaving Newnham and being arrested in Worcester. He had gone first to Cornwall, where he had served as a curate under the name Richard Williamson, at the parish of Tailand, near Looe. This time he stayed in the position long enough to marry a respectable young lady, but soon after the marriage, when he had obtained some of her money, he went to London on ‘urgent business’. Not long after that, a notice appeared in a Cornwall newspaper, announcing the sudden death of Mr Williamson. The friends of his shocked wife went to the newspaper offices to find out if this was a mistake and were shown a letter which had been sent commissioning the announcement, which they believed was in Williamson’s handwriting.
After that, Peacock abandoned his clerical disguise, and was seen in in Bristol and Bath wearing more colourful clothing and living in some style. A fortnight before his arrest, he drove from Bristol to the King’s Head in Gloucester, with his carriage, horses and servants bedecked in orange ribbons, and announced that the Duke of Wellington had secured a famous victory over Marshal Soult in the Peninsula War, which proved to be completely untrue.
The Cheltenham Chronicle reported on the case under the headline ‘SHAM PARSON’, and commented, ‘It would be difficult to trace this extraordinary character thro’ the various disguises under which he has for several years been preying upon the public.’ The report added that the solicitors Tovey and James had been tracing his steps for the past two months and during that time, they had prevented his marrying two more ‘unsuspecting females’, one of whom lived in Bristol.
During his time in prison, Peacock repaid some of his debts, especially to people he owed in Newnham and in Wiltshire. He certainly could afford to do this, as when he was arrested he had over £150 in cash on his person, and he was found to be worth thousands of pounds in property and stocks. Many people asked to see him in prison, perhaps hoping to identify him as someone who had swindled them in the past, but he refused all visitors. He spent his time teaching scripture to his fellow prisoners and reading books lent to him by the prison chaplain.
Robert Peacock, alias Thomas White, Richard Williamson, Richard Thomas, William Whitefield and William Whitmore, was tried at the Gloucestershire Spring Assizes in April 1814. He was charged with uttering a bill of exchange, with intent to defraud Job Thatcher of Newnham. The prosecution stated that Peacock had passed the bill for £30 when acting as a curate at Newnham. He pretended the money was due to him as a quarter’s stipend for the living he held in Ballyporeen, Ireland. The bill bore the acceptance of William Jennings of Dublin, upon whom it was drawn, and the prosecution stated that this had been forged by Peacock. Jennings appeared as a witness and swore that it was not his writing on the bill.
After a trial lasting five hours, the jury took only a few minutes to find Robert Peacock guilty of forging and uttering the bill of exchange. Forgery was a capital offence, but the judge, Mr Dallas, respited the sentence on Peacock. The defence counsel had raised a point of law concerning the evidence given against him, so Dallas referred the case for the opinion of his fellow judges. Peacock was sent back to Gloucester gaol, to await the next Assizes.
At the start of the Summer Assizes, in August 1814, Robert Peacock was called before Mr Justice Dallas. The judge told Peacock that in his case, ‘the proof was very clear; but your Counsel contended that the facts were not proved in point of law.’ The evidence had been submitted to the Judges, along with the grounds of objection, and ‘their opinion was that no doubt whatever could be entertained of the facts being clearly proved’. Robert Peacock was sentenced to death. The judge said that he would be executed on 3 September, ‘unless the mercy of the Prince Regent be interposed; and great interest is made to implore Royal Clemency on his behalf’.
A Judge’s Report on Peacock’s case was immediately sent to the Home Office, along with four individual petitions, the first being from Peacock himself. His mother, Sarah Peacock, sent two and the other was from the Marquess Camden. A collective petition was also submitted, signed by the prison chaplain and surgeon and four of the Visiting Magistrates. The grounds given for clemency to be shown were that the prosecutor had asked at the trial that the prisoner be shown mercy, the prisoner had an aged mother and three helpless children, he had been behaving well in prison and had been teaching the other prisoners scripture. The judge recommended that Peacock should be shown mercy, but the appeal for clemency failed.
Robert Peacock was hanged on the gatehouse roof of Gloucester prison on 3 September 1814, alongside another convict, George Symes, who had been condemned for horse stealing. The Gloucester Journal reported that Peacock had been counselling Symes in the condemned cells, ‘bringing him from obduracy to a more perfect understanding of the awful change he was about to undergo’.
On the scaffold, Peacock shook hands with Symes and with the executioner. He told the latter that he would find a few shillings in his pocket. On the following day, his body was buried at St Nicholas Church in Westgate Street, Gloucester.
Gloucester Journal, 11 April, 18 April, 12 August, 5 September, 1814
Cheltenham Chronicle, 9 December 1813
The National Archives, Judges’ Reports, HO47/53/34, 20 August 1814
Gloucestershire Archives, Parish Registers, St Nicholas Gloucester, Burials (P154/15)
This case appears in Hanged at Gloucester, by Jill Evans (The History Press, 2011)
© Jill Evans 2017