A Cuckoo in the Merchants’ Nest: Fraudster George Joseph Pedley

This is another one of those wonderful stories I  stumbled upon, about an intriguing man which shows so much about his life and times. It is full of bustle and noise, but at the heart of it is a man whose behaviour is utterly bizarre, and whose motives will never be known. But it is a worthwhile reminder that doubtful investments, fraud and money laundering are far from new.

On the evening of 5 December 1780 a fire was spotted in a counting house in Little King Street, the rear of a merchant’s house on King Street. The watchman tried to force the door to investigate, but then raised the alarm and tried to rouse the owner, George Joseph Pedely. Despite the disturbance this created in the street, it took some time before anyone answered and the outbuilding was well ablaze before Pedley at last appeared.

Bristol was at that time building many fine new streets of stone houses, but the old centre, including King St, was still largely built of timber, and the quays crowded with wooden ships, lined with warehouses and many flammable goods, so fire was a constant and terrifying risk. So from the outset Pedley’s lack of concern raised suspicions.

When the door was broken down to the counting house and he was asked to provide water to put out a smouldering table, he provided a bucket with most of its bottom missing.

When asked what had been burnt, he claimed it was his account books, with details of his debts. The counting house was rarely used by him, being some distance from his residence, so seemed a strange place to store such valuable documents. As the fire was in both the cellar and the main office, it was unclear how it started.

Pedley was about 24 years old, of a respectable local family of brewers and bakers. When his father died, his mother continued the business, possibly in partnership with George, though on examination, he refused to divulge even this basic information.

At the end of 1779 he began converting the family buildings in King Street from a brew house and equipping them as a distillery. In March 1780 he employed a distiller for 3 years at 100g per year, and several servants, but by December 2 they had done no work, and were released as not required.

From October to December Pedley embarked on a massive spending spree, of about £10,000. He purchased grain for distilling but also flour, and goods such as lead which he claimed were for export to the West Indies, though he had never been involved in this trade. He resold goods, often at a loss, took items on credit, paid notes into his bank and withdrew cash so there was no money to cover the debts he was amassing. The fire broke out on the day before these debts were due to be paid.

Accountant William Dyer was asked by his creditors to do some accounts for them, but “it proved a vexatious, troublesome affair,.”

Pedley was arrested on suspicion of arson and fraud, and was imprisoned in irons in Newgate on 26 March after being declared a bankrupt and suspected of arson. As evidence was gathered, he soon became established as one of the city’s most infamous criminals. One account of the affair advises the reader to “Sigh over the thought that a young man is any where to be found who is old in iniquity.”

On the night of 1 April 1781, he escaped from prison. A reward was immediately posted of £200 from the keeper of the gaol for information leading to his recapture, and 5g for information on who had provided him with a 2 foot long pointed iron bar. He had used keys to get access  to the lead prison roof, to escape. His brother John was soon arrested as his accomplice.

His subsequent adventures and the means of catching him tell much of the times. The speed at which he was pursued is also impressive given the poor state of communication and transportation at the time.

On 14 Apr “It appears he went to London about 10am, set down in Picadilly where he caught a hackney coach driver to Barnet, then post horse to north road. Mess. Jealous and Carpmeal of Bow Street [ie the famous Runners] set after him to Turks Head Newcastle on Tyne where he was already in custody. He had tried to hire a sloop to take him to Hamburg, but was refused so returned to the Turks’ Head. The publican suspected him of being Weston who robbed the Bristol mail so secured him, took him to the mayor but he jumped out of a window and almost escaped. But the Bow Street runners arrived, and he was committed and heavily fettered. Proper persons are now set out from this city to Newcastle to bring him back to his former habitation.”

By 18 April he was returned to Bristol in a convoy of 3 chaises which included his attorney and officers. A second attempt to escape was detected and foiled. Despite even more care taken to secure him, he made a third attempt to escape in December. “he has somehow sawed off his irons to prevent which being discovered he cemented them together  and curiously twisted a small iron wire coloured the same as the fetters round them so scarcely perceptible. The boring holes with a gimlet close together he got up part of the floor beneath his bed, sacking of which he cut and took up the laths so nothing remained to obstruct his passing to the back kitchen but plaster of the ceiling. The person observing him still in bed in same room so sleeping potion was put in his liquor. When all seemed asleep he got up and broke plaster into back kitchen, broke off lath to yard with an iron bar he found, made a hole to ditch but was defeated so stayed in kitchen, made a fire and wrapped a blanket round him and sat by it, discovered by keeper and family about 7am. He is now in the strongest cells usual for atrocious criminals.

Notice appeared on May 26 that Ann Pedley, George’s mother, had no contact or involvement in the escape plan.

In April 1782 Pedley was found guilty of the felony of arson for setting fire to his own dwelling house but he appealed under the Habeus Corpus act and was later acquitted by Lord Mansfield, as it is no crime to destroy one’s own property. An attempt was also made to convict him under the black act of 9 George I, but they were unable to prove him responsible, ie that he intended to burn other buildings. An attempt was then made to charge him with burning the adjoining property but was acquitted on technicalities in May 1783.

Bankruptcy was a constant risk to anyone in business in those times, and if the businessperson was open with his creditors and made efforts to either pay his debtors or trade out of his debts, they were treated leniently. But Pedley from the outset was suspected of hiding money,.

In September his mother offered £2,500 to release him, so believed he would soon be free. In October a friend was sent secretly to a hiding place, on a by road between Clifton and Durdham Down where he dug up a sum of about 6-700g  and some banknotes allegedly about £1,000 were found in a bottle in Tyndalls Park near Tinker’s Close. But word got out of these finds, which led to a massive treasure hunt in the area, and he claimed a third cache had been dug up by someone else.

In 1783 a pamphlet was published by a gentleman who claimed to have no vested interest in the affair.

“If this portrait should appear hideous, blame? Not too much at the distortion of the human being, but rather sigh over the thought that a young man is any where to be found so old in iniquity. “

He bemoans the easy access to credit, thus corrupting men of trade, and “If men in trade possessed that natural virtue which they are endowed by their creator, … brotherly regard for each other which would lead to prosperity, happiness they would be aliens to misfortune.”  He also condemns Pedley for abusing the trust of his neighbours and inflicting immense distress on them for his own gain. He claims Pedley’s friends and family have accused creditors of pursuing him cruelly, and successfully raised some support for him, so the matter has become unclear.

The gentleman details how Pedley paid for goods with credit, often re-selling credit notes, and using different banks including some in London,  but sold goods for cash, so by 6 December he had laundered  £9864/2/- and had nothing in the bank. He claimed the fire consumed £7034/2/- in notes with other papers and his account books.

His accounting house was claimed to be about 33 yards from his residence, so no person would leave any valuables there. While the fire burnt he announced he had lost all his bank bills, but his brother seemed to have known more detail than he. Suspicion was also raised by his taking out fire insurance for £5,400 for outbuildings and stock but not for his dwelling house. He also denied that he had taken money and papers from the fire.

A woman gave evidence that at about 11pm the night of the fire she had passed the counting house and seen no light there or in the house. Returning about ¼ hour later, the cellar door was open but she didn’t see it so fell in, where she found Pedley with a candle. Pedley’s servant gave evidence that nothing was ever kept there except a few casks of beer. Peldey seldom went there.

About 2 am that morning, a gent of Small Street was alarmed by the fire and met Pedley walking along the quay with a money bag – he could hear coins clinking in it. The night watchman tried to rouse the Pedley house, then went to break into cellar to put out the fire; 20 minutes later he again tried to rouse the house, and eventually a servant and Pedley appeared but did not seem concerned by the fire. During this delay, the papers could have been saved. Various watchmen who attended stated that the fire did not originate in the cellar of the counting house, but the ground floor, where the books were kept. All witnesses swore to Pedley’s negligence, indifference and want of response to the alarm.

At his examination by commissioners for bankruptcy, his behaviour did not help his case. He could not tell how long he had been in trade or when he had begun. He did not know if he had ever been in trade with his mother. He had left school about 12 years before, but did not know when his have had been withdrawn from the partnership of Pedley and Son. He refused even to state what trade he was in.

The running of his business seems to have been mostly a paper chase. He gave no explanation as for why he bought £10,000 worth of various goods and on the date of the fire he possessed £7,200 in notes and cash.

Pedley’s friends often stated that nobody ever saw him light the fire, hence he should be declared innocent. But the gentleman mentioned the recent execution of a cattle driver on Durdham Down for the murder of his companion – no one ever saw him commit the deed, but the chain of evidence was sufficient to convict him, and held more weight to the  author than potentially unreliable witnesses.

During his 3rd examination, Hobhouse the commissioner informed him: “Bankruptcy is an accident common to all man in trade and thought the laws may have the appearance of rigour against men who fail, they amply compensate for that ideal vigor by the fervour they shew to those who honestly obey them. It is the wicked only they punish, and had you entered into trade with the principles of honour and integrity  – had you made the proper use of the great credit you obtained, it is probable you would have largely benefited from it.” Pedley was again reminded that he faced death or a life in prison. He was also reminded of the suffering he was causing his family, and was exhorted to do justice to his creditors whose trust he had so abused.

“to a heart less foul and corrupt than Mr Pedly such an exhortation would have roused it to a sense of compliance, but tho’ he mumbled, changed countenance, almost wept over it, compassion fastened not upon his bosom and gave no other answers if he was examined 100 times.

Creditors would have taken £2500 to let him go free, but though this was offered, it was never paid. Creditors were even accused of being cruel, ungenerous and dishonourable.

Despite the amount of information published on this affair, there are serious omissions, especially, what happened to the money? Why did he do it? And why, given that his family offered to bail him out, did they never pay? Did they run out of patience in the same way his creditors had?

As the gentleman observed, Pedley put an immense amount of planning and effort into his fraud. Given the speed at which it was done, the timing etc, there was no way that he could ever have got away with it. There is no sign that he ever planned to flee with the money, so what was going on in his mind? Born into a local family, he knew about the risks he was taking, and the commissioners seem to have shown endless patience in encouraging him to come clean, but he refused every offer. Was it a matter of him being short of a little cash, so committing one fraud, then gradually increasing his activities as he seemed to get away with it until his desperate final act of arson.

He was held in prison for insolvency till June 1785 when he was transferred to King’s Bench Prison in London for excise fraud; “Mr R Smith claimed to have seen  him there keeping a coal shed in 1794. He was released only by death”



8 thoughts on “A Cuckoo in the Merchants’ Nest: Fraudster George Joseph Pedley

    • Thanks for this. I love the idea of everyone in Bristol heading up to where the university is now, with shovels in search of treasure. Also, the fact that he was arrested in Newcastle by a publican is interesting. I’m not sure if he was clever, mad or stupid. People needed to co-operate to survive, but he seems to have failed to reallise this. Or maybe didn’t care…


  1. This man …who I like to think of as spirited, resourceful but a little impetuous ..is my direct ancestor and actually to finish the story he didn’t die his children were born in the prison, which was an open prison, and he was released by 1810 as by then he had bought two properties in Oxford Street and set himself up as a Soda Water Manufacturer. When he died in 1821 in his will he has also acquired other properties in London and his son Joseph when he died also had acquired more property in London

    His younger son, William, after a similar start, like father like son, ended up very respectable, with an india rubber manufacturing business in Bull Street, Birmingham. So I think this was Joseph’s dream which was achieved by his sons and maybe a little help from the money he had stashed away on the Clifton Downs……..


  2. I’ve always found his behaviour bizarre. I can’t see any reason in why he did it all. Suspect he was mentally ill rather than a criminal mastermind, though it amounts to the same in the end.


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