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By Linda Stratmann
The History PressCopyright © 2013 Linda Stratmann
All rights reserved.
COLCHESTER JACK, 1744–6
Smugglers have usually enjoyed a romantic reputation, and few more so than John Skinner. Well-known among his fraternity in Boulogne as Saucy Jack or Colchester Jack, he was the Casanova of smugglers. Handsome, and well dressed, he no doubt had manners which women found attractive, for he was adept at enticing married ladies from their husbands, and deluding single women that they were the sole object of his attentions.
He was born in Brightlingsea, in 1704, the son of John and Mary Skinner, sound middle-class folk, who did everything good parents should have done to teach him that advancement should come through honesty and hard work. He was provided with a good education, and in due course was apprenticed to a respectable and well-established wholesale dealer in oil, whose place of business was near St Andrew's Church, Holborn, London. If his parents had a fault it was in over-indulging their son, so that as he left childhood and entered his wilder years, he continued to believe that he could have anything he wanted – and what he wanted he took. When thwarted of his desires, he would burst into a rage at those who opposed him. Predictably, his apprenticeship did not go smoothly, for he took liberties not appropriate to his humble position, but somehow all his little flights of folly were passed over as youthful high sprits. When the period of his apprenticeship was over, his proud parents set him up in business in a neat and well-furnished shop just outside Aldgate.
John Skinner was on his way to being a prosperous man. He married an attractive young woman from a good Essex family who brought with her a fortune of some £5,000 (about £475,000 today). The connections of both his own and his wife's families brought a great deal of business his way, and before long he was supplying the greater part of the county.
Money rolled in, but John Skinner believed that there was only one thing to do with money, and that was to spend it on his own personal pleasures. His three weaknesses were, predictably, drink, gambling and women, and he took to spending much of his time in brothels, neglecting both his wife and his business. On one occasion he was heard to declare that he had been at a bawdy-house for ten days successively during which time he had spent £60 to £70.
If he had considered his business at all, he must have thought that his servants would take care of it, but they soon took advantage of his frequent absences and made away with both his money and his goods. Skinner, more than other men, must have known that servants may be tempted by the indolence of their master, but when he sobered up enough to have a look at his books, he was very surprised to find a substantial deficiency. While complaining bitterly about the situation, he was too far gone in his life of debauchery and profligate spending to mend his ways.
His wife, powerless to do anything to improve the situation, and seeing her fortune being slowly consumed, hardly knew which way to turn. She may have felt ashamed of her position, or believed that it was something she should be able to deal with herself – at any rate she was not able to bring herself to tell her parents what was happening. She was a woman of good education, knowledgeable about her husband's business, well-mannered and patient. When he was home she tried to advise him as best she could, but, as a contemporary observed 'he was one of those fine Gentlemen that could not bear to be talk'd to by a Woman'.
Skinner liked to live well, kept a brace of fine geldings and liveried servants, but when out and about taking his pleasures, seldom included his wife in the party, 'some demolish'd Beau, Gamester, Sharper, ... or Bawdy-house Keeper, were his constant companions; and he was so well known amongst those gentry, that he got the Name of Squire Skinner'.
This situation could not go on indefinitely, and in a few years the inevitable happened, and Skinner found himself unable to pay his debts. A bankruptcy order was taken out against him, and it was found that he owed in total £10,000, though when the commission was finally closed he was able to pay his creditors 15s in the pound.
Having settled that little matter Skinner thought no more of the oil business, and indeed no more of his wife, who was brought to a state of utter destitution and was obliged to enter the parish workhouse. Though Skinner was to prosper in the future he was never to send his wife a single shilling for her support. He left London, and returned to his roots in Essex, where he took an inn at Romford, called the King's Head. It was here he discovered that large profits could be obtained with very little work in the business of smuggling, and was immediately attracted to a way of life that seemed to be ideal for his tastes. Before long, he was one of the most notorious smugglers in the County of Essex.
Evading taxes has always been a popular pastime, and the imposition of high duties on desirable luxury goods will naturally attract the opportunist. In the eighteenth century, frequent wars prompted the government to raise finances by taxing imports such as Dutch gin, French brandy, tobacco and tea. At the same time, there were insufficient resources of men and ships to keep a watch on the coast. The result was a thriving industry of smuggling. The potential profits were high – in the 1740s the duty on tea was 4s per lb. Of the annual consumption of 1½ million lb duty was actually collected on only 650,000lb, a loss to the government of £170,000, (nearly £18 million today).
At first sight the coastline of Essex would seem to offer little opportunity to the smuggler. A large vessel, seeking to land its cargo would find few suitable places to approach undetected. Some of the rare locations that offered such easy access were Clacton, Frinton and Walton. There, landing contraband cargo from large ships would involve not just a few men but most of the local community. Labourers would assemble under cover of dark to help carry the goods, receiving payment in kind, and there was plenty of sparsely populated land where packages and barrels could be hidden, or moved without hindrance to a final destination in the larger towns, or even to London. Many publicans were actively involved in the trade, relying on cheap alcohol to stock their cellars, and there can have been few people of quality unaware of just how their silks and lace had arrived onshore.
Unfortunately for would-be smugglers, much of the Essex coastline is flat salt-marshes, with narrow inlets for shipping. Not only would a large vessel be too conspicuous in such a setting, its only means of approach to the inland harbours such as Colchester would place it in danger of having its escape route blocked. The alternative was for the laden ship to anchor out to sea at a safe distance, while the smugglers took small fishing boats out to collect the goods. They could then sail back between the sand banks where the larger Revenue ships could not follow, and land their cargo in the desolate marshlands between Wivenhoe and Brightlingsea.
Those few officials appointed to guard the coast were, for the most part, courageous and conscientious men, who were nevertheless overwhelmed by the enormity of the task, and often quite rightly hesitant to tackle gangs of armed criminals. In the early part of the eighteenth century there were, between Harwich and Colchester no customs officers at all, and just two boatmen at Brightlingsea. In 1721 matters were slightly improved by the appointment of an officer with an assistant, but there was a strong suspicion that the assistant was more than usually friendly with three of the most active smugglers in the area.
With most of the local community benefiting from the trade it was inevitable that smugglers felt they could rely on their fellow-townsfolk of every rank of society not to reveal their hiding places or movements. Even if prosecuted, the justices were reluctant to lose a source of discount luxuries. In 1731 at the Chelmsford Assizes a known villain, John Lilley, was tried for obstructing customs officers, and, much to their disgust, the judge ordered his acquittal without allowing the prosecution evidence to be given.
Local popularity gave smugglers their reputation as dashing fellows, but many were hardened and brutal men, carrying weapons, and not averse to committing murder. Such was the reputation of smugglers for callous violence that in 1736 an Act of Parliament was passed imposing the death penalty on smugglers who used arms against customs officials. Resisting arrest even if unarmed carried the penalty of flogging, transportation or imprisonment with hard labour. While this may seem severe, the actuality was that lesser penalties were often imposed instead, such as seizure of goods – a popular measure with the Customs official – or condemning the smuggler's vessel. It was rarely felt to be worthwhile to prosecute a minor offender.
No one knows exactly how John Skinner operated his smuggling business. Did he roughen his hands on a fishing boat, putting to sea to collect packages of contraband, or was he a land-dwelling 'Mr Big' who financed the operation and relied on paid assistants to do the hard work? One known associate was Daniel Brett, often described as a servant to Skinner but also very much his partner in the smuggling enterprises.
Skinner soon abandoned the Inn at Romford, and moved to Colchester, where he was known to keep company with men and women of bad character. While his main business was now smuggling he sought to disguise this by renting two farms, called the Tan-Office and Cox's Farm, each at £20 per annum, at Old Heath in the Parish of St Giles, and it was in a house on this heath that he was living in 1744. Elizabeth Cooper, a single lady, resided there as his housekeeper.
At 8 p.m. on the evening of 23 May, Skinner arrived home to keep an appointment. He had sent for a tailor called John Rallett also of St Giles, Colchester, to do some business with him. In his later statement, Rallett did not reveal quite what this business was except that it was connected with tailoring, and he left it to the courts to assume that what Skinner had been after was a suit of clothes. Since Skinner was known to deal in smuggled lace, it may well have been that the true nature of Rallett's business was to purchase some contraband goods. When Skinner arrived, Miss Cooper at once drew him aside and had a conversation with him in a low tone of voice, which Rallett could not properly hear, but he gained the impression she was referring to a person and also some things, which were in a place he could not hear named. According to Miss Cooper's statement, she was informing Skinner that some of the goods he had stored in the house were missing. It seemed that Daniel Brett, his partner-in-crime, had arrived there earlier and taken away some packages which the two men had smuggled together. Skinner at once flew into a violent temper, 'and said that he would have his goods again, for he had ventured his life for them once, and would venture his life again for them, for that he would either kill or be killed'. He demanded she fetch him his powder horn, which she did, and stated 'I will shoot him as dead as a carrion-crow, and then let him go and ask pardon of God Almighty'. Skinner loaded his carbine. He called for a dram of drink which she gave to him, and having swallowed it down, he left the house, and, with the words 'now for conquest, liberty or death!', mounted his horse, and rode away. If this was only to do with some missing goods, it does seem like something of an overreaction, but this explosion of temper was very much in keeping with his known character.
It was then about 8.30 p.m., and Rallett departed. Miss Cooper waited some hours for her master's return, but eventually retired for the night.
Skinner was searching for Daniel Brett. At about 10 p.m. he arrived at the house of Thomas Page, a victualler, and asked for Brett. Page said that Brett wasn't there, and Skinner again started to rage, cursing bitterly, saying that wherever he found Brett he would shoot him dead that night.
At some later hour, Skinner did catch up with Brett, but when or where this was, and precisely what passed between them is not recorded. What cannot be doubted is that Skinner shot Brett as he had promised to do, and it seems probable that he then took the wounded man to his own house, for that is the next place he was reported to be.
It was at about midnight that Skinner returned home in a state of great agitation calling to Miss Cooper that she should get out of bed at once, and come to the window. She complied, and demanded that he tell her for God's sake what the matter was. He spoke in a great hurry and with some confusion, and was unable to make a coherent answer, then abruptly, he turned away from the house and rode back full speed to Colchester. Not knowing what could be the matter, but suspecting that she would get no more sleep that night, Miss Cooper lit a candle, went downstairs and tended the fire, so she could sit by it and await her master's return. She had not been sitting there long when Daniel Brett entered, his clothing heavily stained with blood. She saw that he was badly wounded through the body, and did what she could for him.
Skinner, having shot Brett as he had been threatening to do for some hours past was by now panicking at the result of his own actions. Between 12 and 1 p.m. he was back at Colchester and arrived at the house of Thomas Brand, a surgeon. Skinner at once called to him to get up as he needed his assistance as a man was shot, and feared he was dead or would die. He demanded that Brand go with him immediately. Brand quickly prepared to go with Skinner, but he had gained the distinct impression from Skinner's manner that it was he who had carried out the shooting. As he got himself ready he asked Skinner what Brett had been shot with and Skinner confirmed that he had shot Brett with his carbine. Despite this worrying development, Brand went with Skinner to his house and there found Daniel Brett, with a wound in his body. There was no real treatment he could offer, indeed his sole action seems to have been to probe and search the wound, finding the bowels of the ailing man much lacerated and torn. The wound was triangular in shape and about half an inch long and as much wide, but he thought it was about ten inches deep. Whether he gave any kind of pain relief to Brett, such as opium, or whether the unfortunate man was unconscious or conscious during this examination he didn't record. In the eighteenth century such a wound was almost inevitably fatal, and his probing can hardly have helped.
Brand returned home, but came back to see Brett the next morning at 9 a.m., when the suffering man was still alive. He lingered until 11 or 12 noon, and when Brand came back again that afternoon, he found his patient dead. Miss Cooper reported that several times she had asked him who gave him the wound, but he would never answer the question. If true, this is a remarkable piece of loyalty on Brett's part, but Miss Cooper may well have been putting in a little invention to help her master.
The news of the murder had already spread around the district. Clement Boreham, a butcher of East Denyland, called at Skinner's house between 2 or 3 p.m. and found Brett there dead, as reported. By now, it seems that Skinner was over his panic. Life, and trade, must go on. The fact that he had just murdered a man was not to hold up his normal business activities. That same day, Boreham heard that Skinner had some pigs and cows to sell, and went in search of him to buy the goods. Skinner was out and about in a place called Denyland Heath, about a mile from where he had shot Brett. Skinner told Boreham that he had found Brett in company with four or five people conveying away goods – almost certainly smuggled merchandise – in bags and sacks.
According to Boreham, he and Skinner then talked about the pigs and cows. A Mrs Bevan who was present, was more forthright and asked Skinner how he could be so passionate to shoot the poor man, to which Skinner replied, 'I wish I had been in heaven; I am an unfortunate man, and wish I had never done it.'
Matters moved slowly. There is no record of Skinner being officially questioned about Brett's fate, but on 26 May, the various witnesses to the events of the fatal night were gathered together and examined separately and each gave their own story, swearing an affidavit.
It must have dawned upon Skinner eventually that if he remained in the neighbourhood he would soon be under arrest. Justice had paused too long, and when it came looking for him, John Skinner was nowhere to be found. It is assumed that he left the area and lived incognito for a while. Had he continued to do so, he might never have been caught. In the interim, the matter was brought before the courts, and a Bill of Indictment was found by the Grand Inquest against John Skinner for the wilful murder of Daniel Brett, but where the murderer was, no one seemed to know.
Excerpted from Essex Murders by Linda Stratmann. Copyright © 2013 Linda Stratmann. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
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Table of Contents
1. Colchester Jack, 1744–6,
2. One Night in Walthamstow, 1751–2,
3. The Dagenham Outrage, 1846–58,
4. The Clavering Poisoner, 1845–51,
5. Sweet Lass of Buckhurst Hill, 1867–8,
6. The Man at Witham Station, 1893–1901,
7. Tragedy at Southend, 1922,
8. The Beast of Hornchurch, 1939,
9. Explosion at Rayleigh, 1943,
10. Last Taxi to Birch, 1943–4,
Bibliography & Acknowledgements,