Print, Public Sympathy and Material Support Before the Law in Eighteenth-Century London: The Case of Elizabeth Canning

By Joanne McEwan, The University of Western Australia


On 1 January 1753, eighteen-year-old servant maid Elizabeth Canning disappeared on her way home from her aunt and uncle’s house in London. Four weeks later, she turned up at her mother’s house in a weak and emaciated state. She told a tale of being robbed and beaten by two men who dragged her to a house where a woman attempted to entice her into prostitution, stripped her of her stays and locked her in a hayloft. She finally broke a board over a window and jumped to her escape, she said, before walking approximately 11 miles back to her mother’s house in Aldermanbury Postern. This tale sparked a series of events that culminated in two criminal trials (the second of Canning herself for perjury) and a pamphlet war, in which emotive appeals for sympathy and the influence of the press played a pivotal role.

On 21 February 1753, Mary Squires, a gypsy woman who Canning had identified as her attacker, and Susannah Wells, whose house Canning had identified as the place of her imprisonment, were convicted (for robbery and harbouring a thief, respectively) at the Old Bailey. Fourteen witnesses testified at the trial, 11 of whom appeared for the prosecution. After the trial, however, the judge – Lord Major Sir Crisp Gascoyne – launched an investigation into some of the evidence. The scale of his endeavour was unusual, but making enquiries about the character of felons was not, because during the eighteenth century the pardoning system operated such that judges were required to lodge recommendations and return opinions on the suitability of capitally convicted felons for royal mercy.

During the trial, inconsistencies had emerged in Canning’s story as to the room where she was held, her sustenance and how she had escaped. Immense public support had also emerged for Canning, and Gascoyne was concerned that this might have had a bearing on the trial. He explained, in a printed address, that:

Besides the improbability of the story, many other things conspired to make me think a further inquiry necessary; – amongst which were, the antecedent prejudice in men’s minds, the outrages of the mob preventing that solemn and sacred freedom which should attend upon all trials, and the contradictory evidence given.[i]

Public support for Canning had been ignited and sustained by the prolific publication of press reports. These reports positioned her sympathetically as a hapless victim, a ‘poor, injured, innocent girl’, and juxtaposed her with Mary Squires, who was depicted as a wicked wretch, untrustworthy and deceitful – characteristics that were deemed obvious because she was a gypsy: ‘the old Gipsey behaved as a person traditionally and hereditarily versed in the antient [sic] Egyptian Cunning’.[ii]

The public sympathy generated by these reports did indeed influence the outcome of the trial, not only because it had the potential to prejudice the 12 jury members who would eventually deliberate on the case, but because it propelled actions that shaped the case before it reached the jury. I will focus here on two of these material effects. Firstly, appeals printed in the press encouraged members of the public, from artisans and tradesmen to wealthy patrons, to donate money to Canning’s legal cause. Secondly, press reports drew attention to the case and ensured the interest of influential legal and medical men who would weigh in on it – by becoming directly involved, and also by contributing pamphlets to what would become a heated pamphlet debate that contested the evidence and brokered Canning’s credibility in the public sphere.

The Press and Financial Advantage

Newspaper reports started to appear from early February 1753 that appealed for donations to Canning’s legal cause, and offered rewards for the capture of two men who had accosted her and taken her to the house where she was subsequently imprisoned. From 10 February the press started to identify her captors as part of a villainous gang, upon whose apprehension the ‘safety of all his majesty’s good subjects’ depended. By 15 February, specific instructions were being provided as to where subscriptions to aid the prosecution could be lodged:

And whereas the several Prosecutions that are carrying on against the many Persons concerned in the above Offences will be Expensive; – every Person inclined to assist in so laudable an Undertaking as an Encouragement to Virtue, are desired to send their Subscriptions to Mr. Francis Roberts.[iii]

Similar notices – with a growing list of drop-off points – ran each day in the The Public Advertiser, appended to reports that employed popular discourses about female vulnerability and male sensibility, and propped them up by referencing the perceived threat posed by independent women. As a result, and in spite of various questions that emerged about the evidence, the press promoted what David Lemmings has described as an ‘affective jurisprudence’,[iv] whereby Canning was championed as a virtuous girl deserving of public sympathy (and assistance) and Squires was portrayed as a criminal who was not.

The strategy was effective, for on 5 March the London Daily Advertiser urged Canning to visit White’s Coffee-House and pick-up a sum of £30 that had been collected for her there.[v] Such financial resources were significant, because England operated on a system of private prosecution and legal expenses involved in engaging counsel and calling witnesses fell upon the respective parties. While prosecutors were entitled to some compensation for court costs from 1752, this was only granted upon application after the trial.[vi] There was no comparable avenue for defendants to recoup expenses until the 1770s. Mary Squires claimed to have been in Dorset at the time Canning was apprehended and robbed. But, poor and imprisoned in Newgate, she had neither the means nor the opportunity to search the countryside for witnesses to confirm her alibi or subpoena them to the trial in London. The monies amassed from public appeals for Canning not only helped to fund the prosecution of Squires and Wells, but gave Canning an upper hand during the trial by allowing her to produce witnesses who would support her version of events.

The Press, Public Men and Public Opinion

The most damning testimony against Squires and Wells came from Virtue Hall, a lodger in Wells’s house. When first questioned, she had denied seeing Canning before. But the entrance into the case of magistrate and author Henry Fielding saw her change her statement.[vii] Canning’s attorney invited Fielding onto the case as a consultant, and he proceeded by deposing various witnesses. By his own admission, Fielding found Hall in a distraught condition, trembling and in tears, and assured her that if she told the truth he would protect her.[viii] But, by various accounts, he then threatened to prosecute her and Hall wholly supported Canning’s story. This corroboration seems to have been what the public needed to assuage any doubts about the implausibility of Canning’s story.

After the trial, Crisp Gascoyne sent enquiries to the various places in the West of England where Squires claimed to have been in January 1753. He received affidavits confirming the good character of three ‘Abbotsbury men’ who had appeared on behalf of Mary Squires, and other witnesses started to come forward. The key witness, Virtue Hall, also recanted. This had a significant impact on popular attitudes towards Elizabeth Canning, for as Gascoyne pointed out in his Address to the Liverymen, the conviction of Squires and Wells had resulted from the jury’s decision to privilege Canning’s story, based on her good character and corroboration from Hall and the other witnesses, over Squires’ story.[ix] Without this support, aspects of the evidence seemed questionable, Canning’s trustworthiness wavered and a public debate started to take shape. Henry Fielding was one of Canning’s staunchest supporters, and defended her character and the credibility of her story in print. As more and more pamphlets were produced, often by men of public renown, public attitudes towards Canning became increasingly divisive and emotionally charged. The press served as an important forum for advertising the publication of these pamphlets, and for briefly summarising their position for a wide audience.

In April 1754, after months of legal wrangling, Elizabeth Canning stood trial for perjury at the Old Bailey (and was convicted). In contrast to the 14 witnesses who had appeared at the 1753 trial, 119 witnesses were admitted to give evidence. Sixty-three of them were prosecution witnesses who testified against Canning, in large measure by confirming Squires’ alibi. Changing public attitudes towards Canning and the exposure of the case in the press had encouraged many of these witnesses to come forward.

This is, without question, an extraordinary case – a cause célèbre. The mystery of Canning’s disappearance and the sensational nature of her story ensured the press’s early interest, and exposure in the press spread the intrigue and engaged wider audiences. The volume of press reports and printed pamphlets about this case, although unusual, provides us with valuable insight into how sympathy could be generated (and manipulated) in the public sphere and how it affected reputation and perceived credibility. Furthermore, this case gives us clear evidence of emotional appeals and narrative framing, disseminated through the press, significantly and materially impacting on the legal process and the administration of justice.

Joanne McEwan is a Research Assistant and Project-to-Publication Fellow with the ARC Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions (CHE), based at The University of Western Australia. She has previously published on lodging arrangements, attitudes towards domestic violence, and child murder in eighteenth-century London and Scotland. She is the editor (with Pamela Sharpe) of Accommodating Poverty: The Housing and Living Arrangements of the English Poor, c.1650‒1850 (Palgrave Macmillan, 2011) and (with Philippa Maddern and Anne Scott) Performing Emotions in Early Europe (Brepols, in press). Her current research project is titled ‘Women’s Crime and the Changing Role of Sympathy and Support in Eighteenth-Century London’.

[i] Sir Crisp Gascoyne, An Address to the Liverymen of the City of London, from Sir Crisp Gascoyne, Knt. Late Lord-Mayor, Relative to His Conduct in the Cases of Elizabeth Canning and Mary Squires (London, Printed for James Hodges at London-Bridge, 1754), p.4.

[ii] London Evening Post, 15–17 February 1753.

[iii] The Public Advertiser, 15 February 1753.

[iv] David Lemmings, ‘Emotions, Power and Popular Opinion about the Administration of Justice: The English Experience, from Coke’s “Artificial Reason” to the Sensibility of “True Crime Stories”‘, Emotions: History, Culture Society 1.1 (2017): 59–90.

[v] London Daily Advertiser, 5 March 1753.

[vi] 25 Geo II, c.36, §.11 (1752).

[vii] For a study of Fielding’s involvement in the case, see Hal Gladfelder, Criminality and Narrative in Eighteenth-Century England: Beyond the Law (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001), pp.174–81.

[viii] Henry Fielding, A Clear State of the Case of Elizabeth Canning (London, 1753).

[ix] Gascoyne, An Address to the Liverymen, p.3.

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