It was in 1707 that fraudulent bankruptcy became a capital crime in England; what the penalty for personal sequestration in Scotland was then I have not been able to discover but I suppose an English hanging may have been preferable to the French punishment of strangulation.
Peterhead’s Alexander Thompson was about thirty years old when he found himself on trial at the Old Bailey in London in February 1756. Brought up in the Blue Toon in the northeast of Scotland, Thompson was educated to some degree, as were most Scots children, in the basics of reading and writing.
Like many of his countrymen and women before him, Thompson travelled abroad, first to Paris where he learned the specialized craft of embroidery. No mere stitchers embroiderers were skilled in designing patterns used to create gorgeous intricate needlework that would be used decorating clothing worn by the wealthy and for home furnishings.
After five years in France and still a young man in his early twenties Thompson took his experience as an embroiderer to Holland where he carried out his trade for several years, enhancing his reputation as a successful businessman in both Rotterdam and Amsterdam, before turning up in England.
In London he took lodgings in a ‘reputable’ coffee house and enjoyed the high life of the city; forever visiting entertainments. It was at a dance he met his prospective wife, Lydia Davis, but safe to say her father wasn’t keen on his prospective son-in-law. Lydia, or rather her father, had some money as apparently did Thompson and the couple moved into a comfortable house in St. James’s, Westminster. From there Thompson earned a living as embroiderer, dealer and a chapman (seller of cheap popular books.)
However, Thompson was of the mind that all work makes Jack a dull boy and quickly the marriage turned sour and the couple separated. Then one evening Thompson asked his wife to go dancing with him and together they went to Fish Street Hill which appeared to have prompted something of reconciliation. They were at a friend’s house when at around four in the morning on the 20th February 1755 the marital home, where Thompson still carried on his business, went up in flames. Fortunately it was well insured nevertheless all his work materials were lost as well as personal belongings and more importantly two people, both servants, died in the fire.
Rumours abounded that Thompson had been seen in the neighbourhood before the fire broke out, denied by Thompson who maintained he was with his wife the whole of that night. He collected an insurance payout of £500 despite the property having been insured for £900 and immediately went off to a tavern with his father-in-law and a friend to pay off a debt. It emerged Thompson was in debt to several people but despite having enough money in hand he chose not to discharge his debts which amounted to no more than £200 and sent a note to his wife informing her he was leaving London.
His marriage over Thompson sailed for Scotland and in his absence he was declared bankrupt by the courts in England. He later claimed he knew nothing of this although he would have been well aware when he turned his back on England he left as a debtor and failure to discharge debts was then a very serious offence.
Thompson arrived in Edinburgh, described erroneously as the north of Scotland in English court papers and in the southern press. He was still only in his twenties and before long he got married again. History repeated itself when he found this father-in-law was none-too-keen on him either and kept at him to pay off his debts which Thompson must have admitted to so Thompson, possibly reluctantly, sailed back to London. Knowing he was in trouble not only over the money he owed but having committed bigamy Thompson persuaded a woman he met there to impersonate his English wife and swear before a lawyer that they had not been married but only cohabiting in an attempt to make his Scottish marriage legal.
The attempted fraud was quickly discovered when under pressure the woman broke down and admitted the deception. Thompson was apprehended and dragged before his English father-in-law who identified him. In no time Thompson found himself locked up in Clerkenwell New Prison and later Newgate. His bigamy was by now the least of his worries.
During his absence in Edinburgh the London courts issued an order for his appearance before the Commissioners in Bankruptcy at the Guildhall “to make a full discovery and disclosure of his estate and effects, when and where the creditors are to come prepared to prove their debts.” Having failed to comply, Thompson hired a legal representative to argue he had no knowledge of the matter, being in Scotland at the time. He was put on trial for bankruptcy and failing to comply with an interdict to deal with it. His declaration he knew nothing of the action did not wash with the jury and he was condemned to death for not surrendering himself to the Commissioners’ scrutiny.
Meanwhile at Edinburgh Baillie Court that July an action was taken out against Thompson by William Robertson, a limner,* for what I don’t know as the court papers are missing and an application was made by Margaret Lamb, daughter of George Lamb, a wright of Potterow, against Alexander Thompson for his bigamous marriage to her.
Despondent in his English goal Thompson wrote several letters imploring understanding of his situation including one sent to his English father-in-law demanding his help. Thompson, a Protestant, also railed at the church for failing to support him and increasingly desperate angrily declared his desire to die a Catholick. His rekindled interest in religion found him penning prayers, attending chapel and spending time in quiet devotional meditation which led him to regret his ill-treatment of his English wife. And so a contrite Thompson calmly faced the hangman’s rope – and in doing so left two widows.
* artist, or portraits or miniatures