This strange episode took place in late 1829 and early 1830 close to my home in south London, and came to light when I was searching the British Newspaper Archive for interesting stories about the local area. I think the house at the centre of the intrigue is 171 Clapham Road, currently used as a storehouse for a motor accessory shop. It is one of the most stunning – and neglected – buildings in the area.
On Monday 28 December 1829, two young men wearing cloaks were spotted acting suspiciously near Mr. Hedger’s house in Clapham Road and when arrested were found to be in possession of a scaling ladder, a loaded gun, a large sum of money and letters from a mysterious woman addressed to “Mr. Seymour”. Robert Hedger, who had a somewhat fearsome reputation as a county magistrate and chairman of the Horsemonger Lane sessions, was not at home, but the local watch had been alerted to the threat of an attack and were keeping a vigil.
The young men were duly taken to the lock-up at Clapham, where they gave false names (George Frederick Seymour and Thomas Junk) and refused to cooperate further, merely stating that they had been led to believe that a young woman at the house needed their assistance and, specifically, wanted to elope with Seymour.
At the magistrates’ hearing shortly afterwards, it turned out that Seymour had received several anonymous letters, through a third party, purporting to be from the young woman, and it turned out that a day or two before the arrests Mr. Hedger also had received an anonymous letter – telling him to expect an assault on his house and that one of the robbers would be dressed as a sailor (Junk was wearing sailor’s attire under his cloak). As he was about to leave his house for Kingston, he had asked his brother-in-law to remain, armed with a gun, in case the information proved correct.
The young men denied intending to commit a felony (breaking and entering), refused to state their real names publicly (although they later supplied them privately to the magistrate). They protested that they had gone through the usual rituals of elopement, hiring a coach for their flight and, in Seymour’s case, inquiring about dressmakers who could make suitable attire for his wife-to-be. Despite their protestations of respectability, they were remanded to Horsemonger Lane gaol.
The hearing resumed, with more details of the plot. Seymour had, it turned out, never met the woman in question, who claimed in her letters that she had a large fortune and had fallen desperately in love with him. Her letters were left with Mr Catchpole, a watchmaker in Fenchurch Street. The magistrate immediately sent for Catchpole, while the court heard the substance of the letter found on Seymour:
Dear Sir, — Your letter reached me on Thursday, a few minutes before I got into the carriage on our way to Blackheath, where we have been staying until last night; the engagement of a week’s standing was kept a secret from me; you will therefore judge there is no great cordiality existing in our household. Your sentiments are just what I should have expected from the idol of my heart; the world may ridicule the notion of falling in love with an unseen and unknown person, but I have read to little advantage if such cases are not common, and my heart is very treacherous to me indeed if my feelings towards you ever change. I wish you would speedily devise some means for my escape, as I am determined not to remain much longer under my aunt’s roof. Our house is situated a small distance from Clapham; it is large, standing detached, and inclose; my bedroom faces the road, and is about 40 feet from the ground. A ladder, which could easily be placed under my window, would enable me to escape, and a post-chaise at hand to convey me to some place of safety, which I should not fear entering under the solemn pledge of your unimpeachable honour and integrity, until a license could be procured for uniting us. Let me have your plans; a light in my bed-room shall indicate I am ready, as well as point out to youth house, and also my person, which, I flatter myself, you will find far from disagreeable. One more letter from you, fully explanatory, shall be the last I will require, and you shall then see I have resolution to put in force your suggestions. I am disturbed – my messenger is faithful – doubt not my love and resolution. In haste, adieu. To-morrow morning my trusty servant makes her weekly appearance. Be courageous and discern, as you shall find me.
Some felt that the letter was definitely written by a woman, others that it was disguised to appear so.
Clearly, it was a set-up, and if Seymour and Junk had managed to scale the garden wall they would have been in danger of death from Hedger’s brother-in-law, concealed, armed and expecting a break-in. One of the watchmen alleged that Junk had asked him to turn a blind eye to their activities, possibly further proof that the young men had been hoaxed rather than were attempting a burglary.
Then Catchpole arrived he told the court that the letters had been left with him by a female servant and sometimes by a boy. He denied being part of any plot to deceive Seymour and Junk. The coachman hired for the plot also gave evidence, saying that he was convinced the two had gone to Stockwell not to commit a felony but for the purpose they had described.
While we know nothing of Seymour and Junk’s real identity, Robert Hedger, the magistrate whose house was at the centre of the story, is fairly well documented.
The controversial religious periodical The Comet gave this verdict on him in relation to the case of Robert Taylor, a clergyman-turned-freethinker who set up the Christian Evidence Society and attacked the Anglican liturgy. Blasphemy was a criminal offence.
The second prosecution of the Rev. Robert Taylor was managed by a society professing to associate for the suppression of vice; but whose first principle, for thirty years, has been, to protect superstition against all the inroads of reason. The mock trial came on the 4th of July, a sorry anniversary of American independence; and, in the night of that day, the fascinating orator was in the hands of religious ruffians, who treated him with ‘all the barbarity they could think of, or durst venture on. Robert Hedger was the Chairman of the Court of Sessions, – a man whom no man calls friend or companion; a man who has emanated from one of the vilest hot-beds of vice that London ever contained, and who retains the character and the habits that were there generated. Such was the magistrate who sentenced the virtuous and talented Robert Taylor to two years’ imprisonment, and to felons’ treatment.
The Radical Richard Carlile, who campaigned for the establishment of universal suffrage and freedom of the press, wrote this of Hedger in The Scourge on 29 November 1834:
Thursday Noon,—I have been to the City Solicitor’s Office, and have learned that an indictment was to be presented against me this morning. I have since learnt, on returning home, that it has been returned a true bill, and that the Court has been moved, and has granted a warrant for my arrest. All this is mere sport to me. The indictment charges me with having committed a nuisance by the exhibition of effigies in Fleet Street The foreman of the Grand Jury, which has returned this a true bill, is that selfsame notorious Robert Hedger, who is Chairman of the Surrey Sessions, who was born in a nuisance, brought up in a nuisance, and who has turned out a nuisance to society as a profligate drunkard. His father begat him, and made the fortune he inherits in a common brothel and highwayman’s house, that was called the Dog and Duck, in St. George’s Field’s. If the man’s character were now good, I would not reproach him for the scene of his birth; but it is notoriously bad and hypocritical. Though I have quarrelled with Mr. Taylor [see below], I have not pardoned Hedger for his conduct toward him. I will go through with this indictment as I have gone through with others, and defy any indictment to put or take them down.
It is clear that Hedger was not short of enemies.
Hedger died in Brussels, aged 66, in 1851. The fates of Seymour and Junk are not known.
London Standard, 31 December 1829
London Standard, 1 January 1830
The Examiner, 3 January 1830
Hull Packet, 5 January 1830
Oxford Journal, 9 January 1830
The Comet, 3 May 1832
The Battle of the Press, As Told in the Story of the Life of Richard Carlile by his Daughter, Theophila Carlile Campbell. London, A. & H. B. Bonner, 1899
The Spectator, 21 June 1851