Episode 94: Jack Sheppard – the Celebrity Thief

By the time of his death, Sheppard’s escapades had earned him celebrity status among Londoners and he inspired popular plays, prints and ballads. For a considerable time he was the principal subject of conversation in all ranks of society. Hear more about his legendary escapes!

Join Hazel Baker as she talks about the life of Jack Sheppard and his legendary escapades.

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Your host: Hazel Baker

Hazel is an active Londoner, a keen theatre-goer and qualified CIGA London tour guide.

She has won awards for tour guiding and is proud to be involved with some great organisations. She is a freeman of the Worshipful Company of Marketors and am an honorary member of The Leaders Council.

She has been an expert guest on Channel 5’s Walking Wartime Britain(Episode 3) and Yesterday Channel’s The Architecture the Railways Built (Series 3, Episode 7). Het Rampjaar 1672Afl. 2: Vijand Engeland.  Coming soon: Arte.fr programme.


Hazel Baker: Hello and welcome to our London History podcast, where we share our love of London, its people, places, and history. It’s designed for you to learn things about London that most Londoners don’t even know. I am your host, Hazel Baker, Qualified London Tour guide and CEO and founder of London Guided Walks.

Each episode is supported by show notes, transcript, photos, further breathing, and sometimes even videos. All on our website. Simply go to londonguidedwalks/podcast and select the episode like we fancy. If you enjoy what we do, then you’ll love our guided walks and private tours that we offer throughout the year.

Haunted London Podcast Episodes:

Episode 28: A Georgian Ghost Story – the Ghost of Cock Lane

Episode 69. William Terriss – a Victorian Actor and Modern Day Ghost

Other related episodes:

Episode 92. Public Executions


Early Life of Jack Sheppard

Sheppard was born on 4th March 1702 on Whites Row, Spitalfields, East London. He was baptised round the corner at St Dunstan’s, Stepney. His father was a carpenter but died when Jack was very young. By the time Jack was six, his mother handed him over to the workhouse in Bishopsgate. There he would have a roof over his head, food in his belly and given an education. 

When old enough, Jack was apprenticed to Mr Wood, a cane chair maker in Wych Street just east of Covent Garden and north of Aldwych. Wych Street (derives its name from the Via de Aldwych) was “much taken up by upholsterers for the sale of bedding and second-hand household goods.” John Diprose

It was on the north side of Wych Street, near to its centre, was the entrance to New Inn, through which in the day-time there is a thoroughfare into the dismal region of Clare Market. It was in a narrow court of this street the notorious Jack Sheppard served his apprenticeship to Mr. Wood. 

White Lion Passage was so named from the “hostelrie” of the “White Lion,” which stood there. This was the venue of many of the events in the career of Jack Sheppard “that prince of “cracksmen”. It was here where he “used nightly to meet in the taproom his professional friends and acquaintances. The site of the old “White Lion” was at the corner of one of the small courts on the northern side and by the 19th century when Sheppard’s fame has a resurge had ironically become a carpenter’s shop.

Wych Street as it was in the days of Jack Sheppard, would have been similar to that of Holborn Hill as described in “Haunted London”—

“The street curves quaint,

And cumbrous sign-boards creak on left and right.”

His first four years of his apprenticeship, I assume, were uneventful as there is nothing to say otherwise. He had begun to frequent a public-house, called the Black Lion, in Drury Lane, not too far from Wych Street. He became acquainted with a chap by the name of Jonathan Wild and another fellow by the name of Joseph Blake whose well-known alias was Blueskin. It is also at the Black Lion where it’s said he met with women of abandoned character, who afterwards also became his coadjutors. His attention was more directed at one of them, a lady by the name of Elizabeth Lion, also known as Edgeworth Bess. So named as that was where she was originally from. 

Remember those names as they will play an increasingly greater part in the story of our Jack.

Jack’s Life of Crime

It is said that while connected with Edgeworth Bess, Jack frequently committed robberies at the various houses, in which he was employed as a workman. But it was his acquaintance with a woman named Mrs Maggott, where, after him being persuaded by her committed his first robbery in the house of Mr. Bains, a piece-broker. A piece broker buys, shreds and remnants of cloth in order to resell them.

Mr Bains’s house was on White Horse Yard, Drury Lane, not far from where he lived and worked (at his master’s house). What item did Jack first steal? A piece of fustian, which is a thick, hard-wearing twilled cloth with a short nap, often dyed in a dark colour. He took the fustian home to his trunk. He then returned to Mr Bains’s house via the cellar window and stole goods and money to the amount of £22 which he then took to Mrs Maggott. 

Jack didn’t go home that night, nor on the following day. His master, suspecting he had made bad connections, searched his trunk and found the stolen piece of fustian. 

This matter received no further attention and Jack remained in the family until Jack and his master quarrelled about the type of unsavoury company he was keeping and staying out all night. Jack quit the house in his final year of his apprenticeship. 

Jack now worked as a journeyman carpenter in Mayfair. A journeyman carpenter is an occupation which includes carpentry, joinery, roofing and metal working, which come in use for Jack’s future events.

Jack was employed to assist in repairing the house of a gentleman in Mayfair where he took the opportunity to take sums of money, a quantity of plate, some gold rings, and four suits of clothes. His accomplice in this had been Edgeworth Bess who not long after was apprehended and detained in the round-house of the parish of St. Giles, which was used to temporarily hold suspected criminals.


Jack went to visit her; but the beadle refused to admit him and so Jack struck the beadle, broke open the door, and carried Bess off. No doubt, this exploit earned him a high level of street cred to his criminal companions. 

The Sheppard Brothers

Thomas was Jack Sheppard’s brother and became as deep into world crime as his big brother. Their first job together was the robbery of a public-house in Southwark close to the Mint, where they took some money and clothes. 

During the 18th century the Mint in Southwark had a reputation as being a popular resort for coiners, thieves and the like. It became the haunt of the now notorious Jack Sheppard and his companion Jonathan Wild, who is said to have kept his horses at the Duke’s Head in Red Cross Street.

Not long after the Sheppard brothers worked together with Edgeworth Bess, they broke open Mrs Cook’s linen drapery shop in Clare Market. They carried off goods to the value of £55. Within a fortnight they broke into Mr. Phillips’s house in Drury Lane and stole some non disclosed articles. Whilst attempting to sell some of the good from Mrs Cook’s linen drapery shop, Tom Sheppard was apprehended, and committed to Newgate prison and was transported in July 1724. Jack and Bess were wanted accomplices with a ransom on their heads. 

James Sykes, also known as Hell-and-Fury, was one of Sheppard’s companions. He arranged with Sheppard to meet him at a public house in St. Giles in the hope of receiving a reward for apprehending him. While they were drinking Sykes sent for a constable, who took Jack into custody, and carried him before a magistrate. After a short examination, he was sent to St. Giles’s round-house (where he had previously broken Bess from). Jack broke through the roof of the round house and made his escape into the night.

It wasn’t long after his escape from St Giles’s round-house, Sheppard and an associate, named Benson, were crossing Leicester Fields, what is now Leicester Square.  Benson attempted to relieve a gentleman of his pocket watch. The said gentleman called out “A pickpocket!”. Sheppard was taken, and lodged in St. Ann’s round-house, Soho. Edgeworth Bess visited him but was also then detained on suspicion of being one of Jack’s accomplices. 

Jack Sheppard Escapes Prison

The following day they were carried before a magistrate where they were charged with felonies and committed to the New Prison. They passed as husband and wife and were permitted to lodge together in a room called the Newgate ward. Many of their friends came to visit, including Blueskin. A number of their visitors provided the couple with implements which would assist in their escape. Jack put his carpentry skills into practice. He removed their fetters (manacles about his ankles) with the use of a file.

Jack used the file again on the cell door. The dangerous descent to the yard was twenty five feet.  The only means of reaching the ground was by tying together blankets to create a rope. These didn’t reach the floor. 

Bess went first. She made herself lighter by removing unnecessary garments and throwing them over the wall before making her descent. Jack soon followed. They were out of the gaol but still within its walls. The only way out was up. The walls were twenty-two feet high, topped with an iron chevaux de frise. They scaled this and now being free happily marched into town.

It would be at this point I think were I to be in their position that moving to a new town would be a good idea. But no. Was it ego, their enjoyment of local celebrity which drew them back into London?

No doubt Jack’s latest exploits increased his celebrity status. He even made more criminal friends;  a cooper by the name of Grace. A cooper makes or repairs casks and barrels. And Lamb was an apprentice to a mathematical instrument maker. Sheppard, Lamb and Blueskin worked together on a job of Lamb’s master near St Clement’s church. Lamb was suspected, secured, convicted and sentenced to transportation. Sheppard needed to sell his recently acquired goods which they hid in a stable, which they had hired, near the Horse Ferry, Westminster.  A chap by the name of Fields was hired to be their Fence and find a buer for their goods. Instead, Fields stole the goods himself, and then went to Jonathan Wild to sell his information.

Blueskin Captured

Jonathan Wild, was not only a criminal but an informer too. Upon Wild’s intelligence, Blueskin was captured. Wild was due to give evidence against Blueskin, but whilst Wild was passing him in the bail-dock, before  his trial, Blueskin drew out a clasped penknife and cut Wild’s throat. The knife was blunt, and the wound, although bad, didn’t kill Wild. It did, however, prevent him from giving evidence in Blukeskin’s case. While under sentence of death, Blueskin didn’t show a concern in proportion to his situation. He was asked if he was advised to commit the violence on Wild, he said “No; but that a sudden thought entered my mind. Had it been premeditated, I would have provided a knife, which would have cut off his head at once.” 

With no prospect of escaping he took to drinking, which he continued to the day of his execution where it was noticed he seemed to be intoxicated, even while he was under the gallows. Joseph Blake, aka Blueskin, was executed at Tyburn on the 11th of November, 1723.

Jack Sheppard Sentenced to Death

Jack Sheppard also had been secured and was sentenced to death. On Monday, 30th August, 1724, a warrant was sent for his execution, together with that of some other convicts. But Jack had a plan:

“In the gaol of Newgate there was a hatch within the lodge in which the gaolers sat, which opened into a dark passage, from which there were a few steps leading to the hold containing the condemned cells. It was customary for the prisoners, on their friends coming to see them, to be conducted to this hatch; but any very close communication was prevented by the _surveillance_ of the gaolers, and by large iron spikes which surmounted the gate. The visits of Edgeworth Bess to her paramour were not unattended with advantage to the latter, for while in conversation, she took the opportunity of diverting the attention of the gaoler from her, while she delivered the necessary instruments to Sheppard to assist him in his contemplated escape.

Subsequent visits enabled Jack to approach the wicket; and by constant filing he succeeded in placing one of the spikes in such a position as that it could be easily wrenched off. On the evening on which the warrant for his execution arrived, Mrs. Maggott, who was an immensely powerful woman, and Bess, going to visit him, he broke off the spike while the keepers were employed in drinking in the lodge, and thrusting his head and shoulders through the aperture, the women pulled him down, and smuggled him through the outer room, in which the gaolers were indulging themselves, into the street.”

Jack Sheppard Escapes Newgate Prison

1. Handcuffs and Feetlocks, and Padlock to Ground.
2. Cell over the Castle, Jack Sheppard fastened to the floor. Climbing up the Chimney, where he found a bar of iron.
3. Red Room over the Castle, into which he got out of the Chimnoy.
4. Door of the Red Room, the lock of which he burst open.
5. Door of the Entry between the Red Room and the Chapel.
6. Door going into the Chapel, which he burst open.
7. Door going out of the Chapel towards the Leads.
8. Door with a Spring ‘Lock, which he opened.
9. Door over the same Passage.
10. The Lower Leads.
11. The Higher Leads, the walls of which he got over, and descended by the staircase off the roof of a turner’s house into the street.

This taste of his second escape was sweet. One night Jack was walking along Fleet Street, when he saw an opportunity too good to miss. He had seen a watchmaker’s shop attended only by a boy. Sheppard stuck his hand through the window and stole three watches and made his escape up to Finchley to stay low. The gaolers of Newgate, after gaining information of his retreat to Finchley, caught up with him and took Sheppard into custody back to “The Stone Jug.” (jug being a word also used for gaol).

Jack Sheppard Returns to Newgate Prison

Jack Sheppard was put into a strong room known as the Castle. He was handcuffed, loaded with a heavy pair of irons, and chained to a staple fixed in the floor. He was a short man  5’4″ (1.63 m) and lightly built. The irons and castle set up must have looked a tad over the top. But Sheppard had escaped before. The authorities were taking no chances of it happening again. 

Sheppard was visited by a large number of the public, people of all ranks. It’s said that many left him without “making him a present in money”. Although he did not disdain these substantial proofs of public generosity, which enabled him to obtain those little luxuries, which weren’t provided by the authorities. 

On the 14th October, the sessions began at the Old Bailey. The keepers were attending the Court. Jack was left to his own devices for longer than usual. His plan of action had already been activated. At about 2pm the previous day one of the keepers had brought Sheppard his dinner. After having carefully examined his irons, and found them secure, he left him. Sheppard now attempted his second escape from Newgate prison. 

He hid in a cow shed for a few days whilst he tried to remove his irons. Finally, after telling a  shoemaker a tall tale, he was free from his irons. He stayed at a public-house of little trade in Rupert Street for a few weeks living off the money the members of the public had given him while in Newgate prison. Instead of leaving the country, which seemed the only sensible action left,  Jack was itching for some company and went out drinking. 

Newgate Prison Irons on display at the Museum of London Docklands Exhibition Executions

On the 31st of October he dined with two women at a public-house in Newgate-street, a stone’s throw from the prison. In the evening we went to his old stomping ground, to a  public-house in Maypole Alley, Clare Market. Sheppard sent for his mother, and treated her with brandy. She begged him to leave the country. He promised to do so; but he was too inebriated to do anything sensible. He wandered about from public-house to public-house in the neighbourhood till near midnight when he was apprehended after an ale-house boy reported a sighting. When taken into custody Sheppard was quite senseless, and was taken to Newgate in a coach. His fame had increased by his recent exploits, he was visited by many persons of distinction, to whom he gave a recital of his events, expressing hope of a royal pardon. 

Bolt used on cell in Newgate Prison

Having been already convicted, another trial wasn’t required. On the 10th of November he was carried to the bar of the Court of King’s Bench; when a record of his conviction having been read, and an affidavit made that he was the same person alluded to in it. Mr Justice Powis passed the sentence of death on him and ruled for his execution to be on the following Monday. 

Jack’s Plan to Escape Execution

He subsequently regularly attended chapel in the gaol, and behaved there with apparent decency. All his hopes were still fixed upon his being pardoned. Even when the day of execution arrived, he did not appear to have given over all expectations of eluding justice for Sheppard had another plan. This one involved a penknife in his pocket. When the procession came opposite Little Turnstile, he would have cut the cord that bound his arms, and, jumped off the cart and into the crowd and through a narrow passage where the sheriff’s officers could not follow on horseback. 

Before Sheppard left the press-yard, Officer Watson searched Sheppard’s pockets and found the penknife. No matter; Sheppard had a plan B: if he had been hanged he wanted his friends to put him into a warm bed as soon as he should be cut down, and to try to open a vein, which he had been told would restore him to life.

On the scaffold at Tyburn he confessed to the two robberies, for which he had been tried, but had been acquitted.

On 16th November 1724, a 23 year old Jack Sheppard was hanged. This was a time before the drop was used. Hanging was in effect strangling to death. It’s noted that Jack Sheppard “died with difficulty” and must have been a slow way to go. 

When he was cut down, his body was taken to a public-house in Long Acre. He couldn’t be revived. Later that evening he was buried in the church-yard of St. Martin’s-in-the-Fields.

Jack Sheppard at The Adelphi Theatre ©Victoria & Albert Museum, London ©Victoria & Albert Museum, London

Jack Sheppard the Celebrity

By the time of his death Sheppard’s escapades had earned him celebrity status among Londoners and he inspired popular plays, prints and ballads. For a considerable time he was the principal subject of conversation in all ranks of society. Histories of his life issued from the press in a variety of forms:

A pantomimic entertainment was brought forward at Drury-lane theatre, called “Harlequin Sheppard,” wherein his adventures, prison-breakings, and other extraordinary escapes, were represented. 

“The Prison-Breaker” a dramatic farce of three acts was published. A part of it, with songs, catches, and glees added, was performed at Bartholomew Fair, under the title of “The Quaker’s Opera.”

Dozens of songs and glees referred to his prowess, and clergymen preached sermons about him. 

Sir James Thornhill, the celebrated painter who decorated the dome of St Paul’s Cathedral and The Painted Hall in Greenwich, painted his portrait, from which engravings in mezzotinto were made. 

An unnamed contemporary poet wrote the following lines: —

“Thornhill, ’tis thine to gild with fame

The obscure, and raise the humble name;

To make the form elude the grave,

And Sheppard from oblivion save.

Though life in vain the wretch implores,

An exile on the farthest shores,

Thy pencil brings a kind reprieve,

And bids the dying robber live.

This piece to latest time shall stand,

And show the wonders of thy hand:

Thus former masters graced their name,

And gave egregious robbers fame.

Apelles Alexander drew

Cæsar is to Aurelius due;

Cromwell in Lely’s works doth shine,

And Sheppard, Thornhill, lives in thine.”

Even though Jack Sheppard may have enjoyed knowing his life was being immortalised in art and literature I think perhaps he would have preferred knowing that Black Jack pub on Portugal became known the Jump (from when Jack himself had to jump out of a first-floor window, to escape his pursuers, the thief- takers,) a Club known as ” the Honourable Society of Jackers,” met until 1816.

What happened to thief and thieftaker Jonathan Wild? Well, I’ll leave that for another time.


Jack Sheppard written by Ainsworth. Artwork by George Cruikshank.

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