Notorious robber Huffey White, alias Hufton White, alias Huffham White, alias Houghton White, alias William Evans, escaped from the hulks near Woolwich no less than three times before his luck finally ran out. This is his story.
Born in about 1778, White was a long-time criminal and was associated with a gang of robbers, housebreakers, pick-pockets, mail-robbers, although he was known to be a very temperate man, quiet and easy in his deportment. It was said that despite his chosen career, he had never injured another man in the commission of his many and varied crimes. Over time, he and his gang of compatriots became more and more daring and in 1809, Huffey White was caught in the act of burgling a house.
He was described in detail in a news report at the time of his last trial. “The said Huffey White is a native of London, by trade a cabinet-maker, about 35 or 36 years of age, of good appearance, 5 feet 8 or 9 inches high, stoutish made and stands very upright, has thin legs, brown hair, broad full forehead, pale complexion, light grey eyes, and little eye brows; is marked with the small pox in large pits deep in the skin, and at some distance from each other; his nose turns up. He has squeaking voice, is mild in manners, and does not talk much. He is well known at all the Police Offices.” 1London Courier and Evening Gazette – Saturday 20 February 1813
It was just after two o’clock in the morning on 18 May 1809 when Huffey White and fellow housebreaker James Smith were caught breaking into the home of Francis Sitwell, Esq of Durweston Street in St Marylebone. The pair had drilled a hole in the door of Sitwell’s house, just under the lock, and had reached in to open it. Finding a top bolt still holding the door, they were attempting to force it back using an iron crowbar when the noise woke James Waugh, servant to Mr. Sitwell and he came downstairs to find the door standing open. The noise had also alerted John Lamb, a watchman in Marylebone parish who was in Durweston street while doing his rounds.
As Lamb neared the door of Sitwell’s house, he saw Huffey White coming from the door. When Lamb ordered White to stop, he ran into Clay street, attempting to escape. The watchman gave chase along Clay to Dorset street and further to Baker street, Blandford street, Kendall mews and finally to George street where another watchman, Henry Jeffreys, took White into custody.
Yet another watchman, Peter Flanaghan, heard the cries of ‘stop thief’ from his fellow watchmen and spotted James Smith running hard down Baker street. He followed him into Portman square where Smith shouted that he would blow his brains out. Flanaghan continued to chase Smith, and eventually saw him captured by another watchman, John Gorman. During the chase, Smith and White had discarded the tools of their trade and the watchmen later found lock-picks, a dark lantern 2a lantern with a movable panel that can be used to hide the light , an iron crowbar, a knife and a pistol scattered along the road.
On 26 June 1809 at the Old Bailey, Hufton White and James Smith were indicted for the burglary and were found guilty. They were sentenced to death and taken to Newgate prison.
But on Wednesday, 2 August 1809, the Recorder made a report of several convicts who were under a death sentence and King George pardoned both Smith and White, commuting their sentence to transportation for 14 years. They were transferred from Newgate to the prison hulk Retribution on 22 August.
Originally named the HMS Edgar, the Retribution was a British Navy ship launched in 1779 that had seen service in the American Revolution, the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars before being renamed and put into commission as a prison hulk in the early nineteenth century. The hulk was moored on the Thames, not far from the Woolwich arsenal and was one of the most dreaded of the prison hulks in the Thames because of the appalling conditions aboard. Deaths and illnesses aboard were more than double those on other hulks. James Hardy Vaux, a prisoner who was held on the ship recounted,
There were confined in this floating dungeon nearly six hundred men, most of them double ironed; and the reader may conceive the horrible effects arising from the continual rattling of chains, the filth and vermin naturally produced by such a crowd of miserable inhabitants, the oaths and execrations constantly heard amongst them and above all, from the shocking necessity of associating and communicating more or less with so depraved a set of beings. On arriving on board, we were all immediately stripped and washed in two large tubs of water, then, after putting on each a suit of coarse slop clothing, we were ironed and sent below; our own clothes being taken from us….Memoirs of James Hardy Vaux, 1830
Like Vaux, Hufton White was stripped of his clothes and issued ships clothing consisting of one jacket, one waistcoat, one breeches, one stockings, two shirts, one handkerchief, one shoes, one hat, one bed, two blankets, and one pair of irons. Both White and Smith were scheduled to leave for Botany Bay along with 99 other convicts. But White would never make the trip.
Hoffman White, the notorious house-breaker, who was convicted at a recent Old Bailey Sessions, with White [sic – actually Smith], also a notorious house-breaker, for breaking into the dwelling-house of Mr. Sitwell, has escaped from the Hulk at Woolwich, and has not yet been taken. He was there for 14 years, having received the Royal Mercy.Morning Advertiser - Thursday 16 November 1809
Arrested at Stockport
Huffey was recaptured at Stockport by Bow-street officer William Adkin and was tried at the Cheshire Assizes for returning from transportation. At his trial, which took place on 19 September 1810, Huffey White, alias William Evans, was sentenced to death yet again. As with his first death sentence, this was soon commuted to transportation and he was returned to the Retribution on 9 November 1810 to once again await his departure for Botany Bay.
In a case of deja vu, Huffey White’s stay on the prison Hulk Retribution was cut short once again by another daring escape on 18 March 1811. It is thought that he was aided in his breakout by a fellow criminal by the name of James Mackoull, who was in need of Huffey’s skills as a house-breaker. Certainly, by mid-March 1811, Mackoull was deep in the planning stages for what would be a sensational robbery.
Paisley Bank Robbery
On Sunday 14 July 1811, the office of the Paisley Union Bank Company of Glasgow was entered by false keys and robbed of Scotch bank notes, bank of England bank notes and cash of £20k. Hufton White, who has twice escaped from transportation was examined at Bow street on suspicion of the robbery. Saturday 27 July 1811, Northampton Mercury
The robbery of the Paisley Bank was masterminded by James Mackoull, a hardened and habitual criminal. For his accomplices, Mackoull chose Huffey White and another long-time thief named Henry French. The trio journeyed to Glasgow, taking rooms in a lodging house owned by a Mrs. Stewart and were by all accounts, model lodgers.
Finally, on on the night of Sunday, 14 July 1811, using keys that they had made in advance by an iron-grate manufacturer ironically named Scoltock, the trio broke into the Paisley Bank on Queen street in Glasgow. They rifled through the drawers and safe inside, eventually making away with about £20,000 worth of banknotes and gold.
After the robbery, they travelled to Edinburgh and then on towards London where it was agreed that Mackoull would hold the bulk of the loot. He left the booty with his wife in Oxendon street but then, fearing discovery, it was transferred to one Bill Gibbons.
The robbery was discovered on Monday morning and Bow-street officers Lavender, Vickery and Adkins immediately began tracing the thievs. They followed the trail to Edinburgh where they uncovered the identity of the locksmith, John Scotlock. 3Globe – Tuesday 23 July 1811
White was identified by George Johnson, a waiter at the Talbot Inn in Darlington where the trio of thieves had stayed during their flight from Glasgow to London. During their stay, Johnson noted that the men all appeared to have a large quantity of Scotch and English banknotes which they used to pay for their transportation and some food. The note they gave was too large for the landlord to change and it had to be taken to the bank by White to be broken into change.
Lavender, Vickery and Adkins next followed the trail to Welwyn in Hertfordshire and the White Hart Inn where the thieves had arrived in a chaise-and-four. There they left a portmanteau and a coat, directing that it be sent on to Scotlock on Tottenham-court-road in London.
When the officers arrived at Scotlock’s residence, they found Huffey White and took him into custody while Mackoull managed to escape. With White in custody, French and Mackoull feared that their capture was imminent and at French’s suggestion, they found an intermediary, one of the Bow-street officers, Mr. Sayer, to negotiate with the bank. They offered return of the loot in exchange for full immunity from persecution for the robbery and, anxious to recover the stolen funds, the bank agreed.
Both French and Mackoull were protected from prosecution. Huffey White was forgiven for the robbery but was remanded in custody for once again for ‘returning from transportation’ (although he was never actually transported) and was sent back to the Hulk Retribution.
Hufton White.-—On the 18th ult. this one polite gentleman, with four other convicts, absented himself without leave, from the Resolution hulk, at Woolwich ; and it is said, from the paucity of valuables, the party stole away the guard on duty ! This character is well known to the police-officers as any gentleman of the road. —He has thrice received sentence of death and although in every instance, the capital punishment was remitted, it is evident, he was not satisfied with tic destination selected by the judges, on board the hulks, this escape being the third expression of his unwillingness to remain there. He was one of the party concerned in the robbery of the Glasgow bank, for which he was apprehended in July last, but in consequence of making some important disclosures, he was ordered for transportation for life.—Should he again fall into the hands of his old friends, the Bow-street runners, is likely the violated laws will so far consult his taste, as not to send him again to Woolwich, but commit him to the care of that notoriously obstinate fellow, Jack Ketch! —When White attempted to escape from our county gaol, November last year, he had contrived open eight locks by means of keys cast in lead.Chester Courant - Tuesday 03 December 1811
Jack Ketch, mentioned in the newspaper article about White, was a generic term for the executioner, named after one of the early executioners who worked at Tyburn near London from 1663. After three escape attempts, it was certain that the next time White was captured, his sentence would not be commuted again!
And Huffey White did not disappoint. After laying low for a time after his third escape, it was determined that he was a prime suspect in the robbery of the Leeds Mail on Monday, 30 October 1812 and after some investigation by the Bow-street officers, the post office issued a hefty reward for his recapture.
Leeds Mail Coach Robbery
On Monday, 30 October 1812, the Leeds Mail coach was making its way along the regular route from Leeds to London when, between Kittering and Higham Ferrers in Northamptonshire, the coachman shouted something at the guard. The guard answered but the coachman could not hear his response and he asked the guard to lean forward and repeat his answer. He did so, and the pair continued to converse for about five minutes. When the guard resumed his seat, he found that the lock on the coach where the mail bags were deposited had been forced and he ordered the coachman to stop at once.
After checking the contents of the mail cargo, the pair determined that they were missing the bags for Leeds, Hudderfield, Melton Mowbray, Bradford, Nottingham, Kettering, Halifax, Chesterfield, Thrupston, Mansfield, Sheffield, Oakham, Barnsley, Rotherham, Uppingham and Wakefield. In total, sixteen bags were missing.
When the coach reached its destination of London, the post office was alerted to the crime and the guard was immediately interviewed. The money and remittances in the missing bags was thought to be very great and the alarm grew. It was reported that the Leeds coach robbery was one of the largest since the establishment of mail coaches with an estimated haul of about £15,000.
Suspect Taken into Custody
During the investigation over the next week, Bow-street officer Lavender retraced the route of the mail coach and determined that a man by the name of Robert Kendall ran a toll at the gate at Bythorn Bar on the road between Huntingdon and Kettering. Recognizing the name as a man who had been arrested previously for passing counterfeit money, he became suspicious and went to interview him. He took Kendall into custody and searched his home and although nothing was found, he held the man in his charge. A few days later, he also arrested Kendall’s sister, Mary Howes, who had been tending the toll for him at the time of the robbery.
After some months of investigation, Lavender found that Kendall had been travelling at the time of the robbery with another man in a chaise-car and from witness descriptions, that man was none other than Huffey White. A reward was offered for his capture.
Post-office has offered a reward of two hundred pounds for the apprehension and conviction of a person of the name of Huffey White, who is suspected of having been concerned in robbing the Leeds Mail, on Monday evening the 20th of Oct last. White has it seems been four times been transported on board the Hulks, from which he has three times made his escape. He was one of the persons concerned in the robbery of the Paisley Union Bank, and has lately been in the counties of Cambridge, Huntingdon, and Northampton, passing by the name of Wallis.Lancaster Gazette - Saturday 20 February 1813
White Eludes Capture
Hufton White, the man suspected being the contriver and principal actor in the robbery the Leeds Mail, has not yet been taken, notwithstanding the liberal rewards offered for his apprehension. Some time since the Police officers of Birmingham received private information that be was in that town, with a description of his dress, and that he would the mail from thence to Manchester. They watched the passengers at the inn, found one them to be Robert Brady alias Oxford Bob, a well known character. The officers knowing him, had some conversation with him; he leaned out of the coach window to talk with them.—During this time, Hufton White was sitting by his side. Brady continued pinching him as a signal to get out the coach and be off. White, however, sat perfectly quiet. The officers, after some consultation, made up their minds to take Brady into custody aud detain him ; he very readily got out of the coach, being well aware that it w not him they wanted. White, who had hitherto sat very quietly in the coach, got out, walked up an inn yard, got over some paling, and has never been heard of since.Chester Chronicle - Friday 02 April 1813
Eventually Lavender caught up with Huffey White and he was duly arrested for suspicion of the robbery and transported in handcuffs and irons from Liverpool.
The noted Huffey White, charged with being concerned in the robbery of the Leeds Mail, and Haywood his companion, were both taken at Liverpool on Thursday night last. White had recently arrived there from Bristol.Saunders's News-Letter - Friday 09 April 1813
The trial of Mary Howes, Robert Kendall and Huffey White took place on 2 August 1813 at the Northampton Assizes, lasting from nine in the morning until eleven at night. Mary Howes, charged with being an accessory after the fact, was acquitted but by the close of the assizes, Kendall and White would be sentenced to death and ordered for execution. After the judge delivered White’s fate to him, he asked if he had anything to say. Huffey White told the court:
My lord, I robbed the Leeds Mail alone. Kendall knew nothing about the matter. I planned it myself, did it myself. You wouldn’t like to send an innocent man to the gallows, any more than I would like an innocent man to suffer for my crime. He is innocent my Lord, and I alone am guilty.Northampton Mercury - Friday 25 June 1937
Despite White’s protestations, Kendall too was sentenced to death.
On Friday, 20 August, 1813, Huffey White and Robert Kendall were executed at the Racecourse in Northampton. Kendall was visibly distraught, protesting his innocence to the last. In contrast, White was calm and his last words to the clergyman were that the only comfort he could give would be ‘by getting some other man to be hanged for me’ .