King of the Swindlers

Submitted by edpope on

This article is incomplete. A chronology of John King DNB c1753 - 1824. There's a dataset John King's Crowd, for his guests, confederates and enemies. This article isn't complete yet, but I'll try to assess the allegations contained in some accounts of his swindling activities published during his lifetime. The main sources I'm considering are 1) King of the Swindlers by Thomas Martyn, first published in ten numbers in 1798 (see True Briton 15.8.1798) and 2) Scourge, article in the first issue in 1811, and two letters published in 1815 (p219 & p411), claiming to be by one of John King's sons. King of the Swindlers covered King's activities from 1780 to 1784, when he left England for a few years, though it sometimes referred to his earlier activities, and it also promised to continue the story, but never did. The 1811 article in the Scourge was largely based on King of the Swindlers and what it said about King's activities after 1784 seems ill-informed. The letters in the Scourge 1815 were probably genuinely written by George, apparently a son of John King who wrote three letters to William Godwin in 1802 (Abinger c7 f115-20), and their account seems well-informed, though he clearly wanted to put his father in a bad light. The best modern account of John King was by Todd Endelman in AJS Review 1984 p69-100, and see also the article by Pamela Clemit in Bodleian Record 24/1, April 2012. The account in Notes & Queries 1908 p428 by I Solomons included information from the records of John King's school which according to Todd Endelman now seem to have been lost.

1771 £5 premium paid by John King's school to place him as a clerk "to a Jewish merchant house"(Endelman). The article mentioned above in Notes & Queries didn't specify Jewish, though of course that would have been likely.

1772 Endell St Lying-In Hospital George born 5.9.1772 baptised 10.9.1772 son of Mary wife of John King clerk, recommender Hankey. According to George King in the Scourge, his father was lawfully married to a Scotch woman by whom he had three sons, and she died at Hampstead after being confined in a madhouse for an alleged attempt on John King's life. If they were lawfully married (and George King may have simply been in denial of his illegitimacy) the marriage would have likely taken place before 1776, when John King married Sara Lara. Hankey was the name of a family of non-Jewish London bankers. On the other hand John King was a common name, and in the Scourge George King referred to his older brother James. If George King had been born in 1772, he would have been 22 when in 1794 he first returned from school in Yorkshire to help his father. So that baptism entry was probably not his.

1773 Charlotte dau of John King & Sarah bapt 18.7.1773 Leyton, Essex. See Charlotte Byrne DNB 1782?-1825, where her age in the record of her burial was said to be 53. That is certainly a high degree of coincidence between names and dates. Sara Lara supposedly married John King in 1776. There was a marriage at Maldon, Essex (not very near Leyton) in 1765 between a John King and a Sarah James. As a village near London, Leyton could have been a good place to baptise an illegitimate child

1774 John King apprenticed 24.10.1774 to David Jennings, attorney of Carey St, premium £52 10s. According to King of the Swindlers, John King was articled to Michael Massey Robinson in 1778, just in case he ever needed to pracise as an attorney, which apparently he never did. Some other John Kings that could have been "our" John King but probably weren't, were John King agent, Richmond Buildings, Soho 1783, 1790, John King attorney, Cutlers Hall 1779, and John King merchant, Charlotte St 1780, just to remind us that the name was common

THOMAS MARTYN  c.1737-1823, not to be confused with Thomas Martyn DNB 1735-1825 botanist or with Thomas Martyn DNB fl.1779-1811 natural history illustrator and pamphleteer. The first two were both ordained and often referred to as the Rev Thomas Martyn. All of them were sometimes spelt Martin. Thomas Martyn son of Roger of Awliscombe Devon matriculated Balliol College Oxford 1755 age 18, married 1759 Frances dau of Edward Beadon and niece of Richard Beadon will PCC 1780. He became the curate of St Anne Soho but in November 1774 was given notice to quit by his rector, Rev Richard Hind. There followed a series of pamphlets in which Martyn defended the rights of curates, and court cases where Martyn gained some fame for conducting his own defence. In 1780 he was the moderator of the School of Eloquence at Carlisle House whose principal was David Williams DNB 1738-1816, who lived with Martyn's wife Frances from around this time until her death in 1812, when Martyn was freed to marry his own long term partner Elizabeth Banning. On 1.5.1780 Martyn put an announcement in the newspapers disassociating the School of Eloquence from the Ladies Only night which had taken place at Carlisle House. In 1799 when John King brought a criminal action for conspiracy against Martyn for writing King of the Swindlers, his fellow accused were David Williams and Elizabeth Banning. King's Apology (1800) gave a brief synopsis of Martyn's life till then, saying he had spent 20 years in a revengeful quarrel with the vicar of St Anne's, had resigned the ministry, been a half-pay officer, a gambler, a money-monger, cutler and cut-purse, and had just been freed from the Fleet prison by the Insolvent Debtors' Act after five years' incarceration. Of his squabble with Martyn, King said Martyn had instituted fictitious debts against him, whereupon King indicted him for perjury, and Martyn threatened to write a book unless King dropped the indictment and gave him £300. Martyn had certainly been a cutler. His sister Catherine had married William Riccard, whose will was proved PCC 1786, in which year Catherine Riccard toywoman and silversmith was insured at Castle St, Leicester Fields. In 1792 Thomas Martyn was listed in the London Patent Directory as cutler and silversmith, Castle Street, Leicester Square, and in the same year a newspaper advert announced that Thomas Martyn had removed the cutlery and plate manufactory late Riccard from Castle Street to 48 Pall Mall. The records of the Fleet prison show Martyn was there from 25.10.1794 to 16.12.1797 and again from 3.5.1799 to 22.11.1799. He admitted in court having written King of the Swindlers, and Williams admitted to correcting the proofs. The charge of conspiracy failed but Martyn was found guilty of libel, a charge which had already succeded against the publisher J Parsons of Paternoster Row, based on a statement about King's early life in the first number of the book, which was originally issued in ten numbers in 1798. Whether Martyn was chastened by the brush with King, or whether King paid him off, the promised continuation of King of the Swindlers beyond 1784 never appeared. Martyn became curate of Newhaven and Piddinghoe, Sussex in 1811, and he married Elizabeth Banning spinster at St Marylebone on 15.4.1812, three months after his wife's death. The Hampshire Telegraph of 21.4.1823 reported his death aged 85 on 5.4.1823, calling him the Rev Thomas Martyn Ll.D. (Doctor of Laws), many years officiating minister of Newhaven & Piddinghoe. Jackson's Oxford Journal of 1.7.1837 reported the death at Percy Cross, Fulham aged 75 of Mrs Elizabeth Martyn, relict of the late Rector of Newhaven.

KING OF THE SWINDLERS is remarkably full of names and details, many of which check out with records. It purports to be taken from John King's own diary found in a cab but, while the truth of this cannot be discounted, the direct quotes are too melodramatically Machiavellian (and improbable in other ways, particularly the dialogues) to be believed. As a literary device it works very well. Martyn may have had inside knowledge, having perhaps been one of King's swindling confederates, he may have had an informer, or he may have compiled lists of frauds from gossip, newspapers or court records and recruited them retrospectively into King's gang. His book is dedicated to the Society for the Protection of Trade against Swindlers and Sharpers, whose secretary Edward Foss of Goff Square may well have had a dossier on all sorts of frauds which Martyn could have had access to.

!779 directory King & Piggersgill merchants Love Lane Aldermanbury

1780 Public Advertiser 10.4.1780 ad for pocket book lost at Carlisle House on last Thursday evening containing bills including one for £237 10s drawn by King & Paul Pickersgill, all have been stopped but 5 guineas reward for their return to 2 Great Love Lane Aldermanbury

1781 directory John King & Co merchants 2 Great Love Lane Aldermanbury

Although King of the Swindlers, presented as King's diary, began dramatically with the firing of the Kings Bench prison by the Gordon rioters on 7.6.1780, thus liberating King, the narrator sometimes dropped the (alleged) direct quotes in order to summarise, and sometimes referred to earlier events in King's life in footnotes. He stated on p19 that King's firm in Love Lane had failed in infamous circumstances in 1778. I've found no reference to this failure in the newspapers, and the Land Tax records for Cripplegate Ward show John King & Co paying the tax from 1778 to 1780 or 1781, see also the three items cited above. In the alleged diary King described how he attended a meeting of the Westminster Forum on the same night as his liberation from prison. That debating society had in fact been meeting on Mondays and the last meeting advertised in the papers had been on Monday 29 May. Even if a meeting was planned for Monday 5 June it was very likely cancelled as the riots were already in full swing by that night, and it seems improbable that it would have been put forward to the Wednesday, and not cancelled again, as the rioting was still in full spate on the Wednesday. It was coming to the end of the season anyway, and no more meetings of the Westminster Forum were advertised in the papers till the autumn. Later in the diary there was a similar discrepancy on Wednesday 31.1.1781 when King supposedly met, at the Globe tavern, William Garrow (DNB 1760-1840) who had just come from a debating society at the Mitre in Fleet St. According to an ad in the London Courant 8.9.1780, that society was to meet on Mondays too. More damning perhaps for the genuineness of the alleged diary are the Kings Bench prison commitment books (Nat Arch PRIS 4/6 & 7). The rioters gave a few hours' notice of their intention to fire the prison, and the only obvious sign of this event in the commitment books is a note underlined to say the prison was burnt down on 7.6.1780, between a commitment on 6.6.1780 and another on 9.6.1780. But there is no record of a John King being committed to the Kings Bench prison in the four years preceding the riots. However John King and Paul Pickersgill were committed together to the Kings Bench prison on 23.8.1780 at the suit of John Turner gant, and later of Jonathan Garton (final judgement £440). They were discharged by order of Lord Mansfield, the Lord Chief Justice, on 16.11.1781. J King & Pickersgill of 74 Lombard St appeared in "An Authentic List of Persons..., who have surrendered themselves....into the custody of the Marshal of the King's Bench Prison between 7.6.1780 and 31.1.1781". Though the prison had confined 800 debtors before the riots, the list contained about 3000 names who hoped to take advantage of an Act which enabled debtors to surrender and remain at large while the prison was being rebuilt, and then annul their debts by an expected Insolvent Debtors Act  (See Lloyds Evening Post 1.6.1781 Attorney General in House of Commons and Morning Chronicle 14.7.1781 Lord Chancellor and Lord Mansfield in House of Lords). John King may have been one of the "fraudulent debtors" who were arrested by a friend in order to annul their debts. The prison was said in the House of Lords to be nearly ready in July 1781. The next year, when John King was declared bankrupt (Gazetteer 18.2.1782) he was described as a merchant formerly of Love Lane Aldermanbury and late of Lambs Conduit Street, and he gained his certificate by 17.8.1782. In King of the Swindlers King was said to have been summarily ejected from Lambs Conduit Street on 25.1.1781, when his landlord realised who he was. The 1782 bankruptcy didn't figure in King of the Swindlers except perhaps in his supposed retrospective musings dated 28.10.1783, though his next bankruptcy, as John King of Dean St Soho money scrivener on 24.2.1784, seems to correspond with events described on p 283 of King of the Swindlers.