The Old Bailey and Elizabeth Canning

This is from the book London 1753 by Sheila O’Connell:

“The case of Elizabeth Canning was the cause celebre of 1753. On 1 January, Canning, an 18 year old scullery maid living in Aldermanbury postern, disappeared on the way home from visiting relations in the East End. A month later she turned up at her mother’s house in a dishevelled state saying that she had been kidnapped by a brothel-keeper. A neighbour suggested that the house where she had been held was that of Susannah Wells in Enfield, a poor parish some 8 miles north of the City. Canning was taken to Enfield and there identified Wells, a disreputable old woman, and her friend Mary Squires, who was to become famous as ‘the old gypsy’. Canning repeated her story to Henry Fielding, the novelist and chief magistrate for Middlesex, who had the two old women arrested. At the subsequent Old Bailey Trial, Wells was found guilty, branded on the thumb an sentenced to serve 6 months in Newgate prison; Squires was found guilty of the capital offence of stealing Canning’s stays valued at 10s and was sentenced to be hanged. Although the jury believed Canning’s story, the judge, Lord Mayor Crisp Gascoyne, was suspicious. Squires claimed to have been in Abbotsbury, Dorset, at the time of Canning’s disappearance and to have walked back with her son and daughter, not arriving in Enfield until late January. Gascoyne wrote to the vicar of Abbotsbury who was able to confirm the alibi. Other respectable witnesses were found who had encountered the family during their 120 mile walk. The King granted Squires a free pardon.

London divided over the case: at least £300 was collected for Canning by well-wishers; she was invited to White’s Chocolate House in St James’s and given 30 guineas; the mob pelted Gascoyne’s coach. A pamphlet war broke out between Henry Fielding and the journalist and botanist Dr John Hill, known as ‘The Inspector’; the painter Allan Ramsay published an anonymous letter suggesting that Canning’s absence was in order to conceal pregnancy; news even spread abroad and Voltaire wrote an essay on the case. [various prinits and etchings followed]

Canning was eventually found guilty of perjury and sentenced to be transported to America. She ended her days in Weathersfield, Connecticut, married into a respectable local family and the mother of 5 children. The truth of where she spent January 1753 has never been discovered.”

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