On this day – 14 May 1755
In fictional terms one of the most successful London pickpockets was the juvenile criminal creation of Charles Dickens, the Artful Dodger. In reality the most celebrated, and for a long time the most successful, was the society pickpocket, Irishman George Barrington.
Born in Maynooth, Co.Kildare, as George Waldron, son of a silversmith and a midwife, Barrington received a good education at the expense of a wealthy patron. He rewarded this patronage by stabbing a fellow-student, robbing his schoolmaster and fleeing to join a troupe of travelling players, all by the age of 16.
After one of his earliest criminal mentors was caught in Limerick and sentenced to transportation Barrington fled to London where his education, charms and plausibility enabled him to prey on the wealthy. One of his most celebrated early victims was a Russian nobleman, Count Orlov, whom he robbed, in Covent Garden opera house in 1775, of a gold snuff-box set with diamonds worth £30,000. He was caught in possession of the box but Orlov refused to press charges and Barrington was released. Later he was recognized while in the House of Lords and was turned out before he could do any damage. Shortly thereafter he was caught in the act of robbing a woman in Drury Lane theatre and sentenced to five years hard labour on the infamous ‘hulks’ – prison ships lining the Thames in the years between the end of transportation to the Americas and the commencement of the removal of convicts to Australia.
The intervention of influential friends meant that he only served twelve months on that occasion. On his release he returned to his lucrative craft, dividing his time between London, Dublin and Edinburgh. When he was caught and tried, and that was more than once, he always sought to influence juries with eloquent speeches from the dock denying his guilt and charging his sinister accusers with conspiracy.
Finally, in 1791, he was transported to Australia. The story goes that while on board a prison ship bound for Botany Bay he got wind of a planned mutiny by a number of the convicts. When he reported this to the ship’s captain the latter spoke up on his behalf on landing in Australia and Barrington was appointed superintendent of convicts in Paramatta, now a suburb of Sydney. He retained this position after he obtained the first emancipation order issued in Botany Bay and went on to become High Constable of Paramatta. He died in 1804, the same year in which Irish political convicts unsuccessfully rebelled against the harshness of the colonial regime in New South Wales.
In Australia the Kildare man is most famous for a single line of poetry ascribed to him but which he may not have written. It’s the final line in a stanza contained in the prologue of his book A History of New South Wales . It reads …
From distant climes, o’er wide-spread seas, we come,
Though not with much éclat or beat of drum,
True patriots all: for, be it understood:
We left our country for our country’s good.
Whether or not he actually wrote the prologue, it certainly reeks of the sort of rhetorical humbug that was his calling card. George Barrington, the so-called ‘Gentleman pickpocket’ was born in Maynooth 258 years ago on this day.