A Nasty Vicar?

This is an account from John Latimer’s Annals of Bristol, and highlights the legal processes of 18th Century England:

On the 15th May 1772, a man named Jonathan Britain was hanged at St Michael’s Hill for forging a bill of exchange for the sum of £10. The case excited much public attention. Britain had been an usher in the school kept by Mr Donn in the City Library in King Street, and had also been a frequent contributor to an anti-ministerial paper called The Whisperer.

In July, 1771, whilst at Reading, he attempted to obtain cash for four bills of exchange to the total value of £45; but doubts as to their genuineness having been aroused, he was arrested, and ultimately committed for trial on suspicion of forgery.

Apparently in dread of the result, Britain soon afterwards declared that he was one of the persons concerned in setting fire to Portsmouth dockyard a short time previously, and that it was his intention to avail himself of the royal pardon promised in the London Gazette to any one making a full discovery of that crime.

He followed up this statement by publishing in The Whisperer virulent attacks on members of the Government, and on the king’s favourite, Lord Bute. These articles, which were continued for several months, and insinuated criminal charges against many prominent personages, excited attention all over the country.

In the meantime, a Bristol firm acquainted the prosecutors at Reading that Britain had absconded from this city, after obtaining payment of three forged bills, amounting together to £35. This fact came to the knowledge of the Rev. William Talbot, vicar of St Giles, Reading, who had taken an inexplicable antipathy to Britain from the outset, and who, as he afterwards avowed, had resolved to rid the world of “an execrable villain”.

It was foreseen that the charge of forgery at Reading could not be sustained, the prosecutors having negotiated to retain the evidence of the fraud. It appeared also that the injured persons in Bristol had no intention of prosecuting the prisoner.

Mr Talbot therefore determined to prosecute the Bristol cases at his own expense, and made several journeys to the city to engage legal assistance and collect evidence, having stooped, it was  alleged, to gross dissimulation for the purpose of extracting information from Britain’s friends. Two or three journeys were also made to London with the object of strengthening the case.

Finally,on the Berkshire grand jury rejecting the Reading indictments, Britain, at Mr Talbot’s instance, was arrested by officers from Bristol, where he was brought for trial on the 2nd May 1772, on one of the three indictments laid against him. the prisoner had practically no defence, and his claim to be entitled to pardon under the Gazette notice referred to above was, of course, set aside.

After conviction, Britain confessed that he really knew nothing about the Portsmouth fire, and that his articles on the subject were a tissue of falsehoods. the man was undoubtedly a vicious and heartless scoundrel; but the extraordinary manner in which he was dragged to the scaffold by a clergyman gave great offence, and Mr Talbot’s solemn assurances that his time and money had been lavished solely in the service of the public were received with general incredulity.

I’m not sure how much of a scoundrel Britain was,but anyone on trial for their life would clutch at any straws to stay alive, so maybe Latimer is a bit harsh on him. Or maybe he was a complete scoundrel. There have always been plenty of them.


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