The Mysterious Case of Elizabeth Canning: Bevis Hillier Investigates the Alleged Abduction 250 Years Ago, of a Young Servant Girl, Which Divided London Society at the Time and Has Puzzled Historians Ever Since

Article excerpt

ON NEW YEAR'S DAY 1753 an eighteen-year-old London maidservant called Elizabeth Canning was abducted in the City by two ruffians. She was carried off in a carriage to a brothel in Enfield, eleven miles out of London. Here, `Mother Wells', the madam of the establishment, tried to force her to become a prostitute. Canning refused. A hideous gypsy crone staying in the house, Mary Squires, cut off the girl's stays (worth 10 shillings), and Elizabeth was imprisoned in an attic with only a few crusts of bread and a jug of water to live on. On January 29th, after almost a month in captivity, she escaped through a window and walked all the way back to her mother's house in the City. That, at least, was Canning's story; and she was sticking to it.

Somebody who quickly heard of her return was her master, Edward Lyon, a jobbing cabinet-maker who worked mainly for the Goldsmiths' Company. He was in the habit of drinking at a rowdy club near Goldsmiths' Hall, run by Gawen Nash, a former goldsmith who was by now the Company's official butler. Lyon told his drinking companions what had allegedly happened to his poor servant. On February 1st, a posse rode from the City to Enfield, including Nash and the silversmiths Edward Aldridge the younger and John Hague. Elizabeth Canning herself also came down in a chaise. Mother Wells and the gypsy were arrested and hauled before an Enfield magistrate. Another person who enters the story at an early stage is the novelist Henry Fielding, who was a Middlesex magistrate. He was asked to interrogate the unaptly named Virtue Hall, a girl from Wells' house who was maintaining she had never set eyes on Canning. Under Fielding's bullying she recanted and supported Elizabeth's story.

Squires and Wells were tried at the Old Bailey in 1753. Wells was sentenced to be branded on the thumb for keeping a disorderly house--a punishment carried out forthwith amid a jeering, exultant crowd. Squires, the gypsy, was sentenced to be hanged for stealing Canning's stays. But Sir Crisp Gascoyne, who as Lord Mayor of London was ex officio chief magistrate and sat in on the trial, was apparently dissatisfied with the verdict. He was impressed by the gypsy woman's alibi, which was, that at the time of the alleged assault, she had been in Dorset, and that she had respectable witnesses (among them, a clergyman) to prove it.

Gascoyne appealed to George II, who granted, first a stay of execution, then a free pardon to the gypsy. Now Elizabeth Canning was indicted for perjury and imprisoned in Newgate--where Hogarth painted her portrait, now lost. Another artist, Thomas Worlidge, made drawings of both Canning and Squires from life. The London mob did not like the turn events had taken. To them Canning was a tabloid heroine who had risked death by starvation rather than suffer dishonour. They called Sir Crisp Gascoyne `The King of the Gypsies' and broke the windows of his golden coach.

By 1754 the case had become a cause celebre. It divided the nation. The two opposing factions were known as `Canaanites' (Canningites) and `Egyptians' (those who supported the gypsy). Years later, in his memoirs of 1790 the actor-manager Tate Wilkinson recalled:

   Elizabeth Canning [and] Mary
   Squires the gypsy were such universal
   topics in 1752 [he meant 1753-54]
   that you would have supposed it the
   business of mankind, to talk only of
   them ...

Charles Churchill wrote in his poem `The Ghost' (1762-63):

   Betty Canning was at least
   With Gascoyne's help, a six months'
   feast.

William Jackson stated in The New and Complete Newgate Calendar (1818):

   No affair that was ever determined in
   a judicial way did, perhaps, so much
   excite the curiosity, or divide the
   opinion of the public, as that in
   question. The newspapers and
   magazines were for a long time filled
   with little else than accounts of
   Canning and Squires: prints of both
   parties were published, and bought
   up with great avidity. …