The Harp and Crime in Nineteenth-Century London

As published in The American Harp Journal, Winter 2022, pp.9-14.


Grecian harp by Erard. Image used with the kind permission of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Acc. no. 1978.291.1. (CCO).

It probably won't surprise you to hear that the harp and crime are inextricably linked. Both, in one form or another, have been around for almost as long as the human race. It also won't surprise you to hear that the harp and its makers and players were sometimes victims of theft. You may, however, be surprised by the ingenuity and complexity of some of these crimes, from straight-forward thefts motivated by desperation to chancers handling stolen goods for profit, and aspirational thieves who not only wished to line their pockets but live an entirely different life.

Harps are expensive—if you're reading this you already know that. In 1811, from Erard, one could buy a single-action harp for £84, or a double-action for 120 guineas.[1] At a time when wages were low and poverty common, the harp was a luxury item available only to the wealthy. Colquhoun (1814) found that the lowest class, consisting of “paupers and their families, vagrants, gipsies, rogues, vagabonds, and idle and disorderly persons, supported by criminal delinquency,” earned between £10 and £12 a year. Mechanics, artisans, agricultural labourers, or menial servants (living out) were paid between £30 and £100, and earnings of shopkeepers, innkeepers, and publicans ranged from £100 to £200. With harps costing more than a year’s salary for most workers, it is unsurprising that they became targets of crime.[2]

In 1828, Thomas Maddocks, a seventeen-year-old gilder's apprentice, was accused of stealing a harp worth fifty guineas from James Delveau, its maker, who lived at 28 Conduit Street, London. When he left home at 7 pm on May 8, the instrument was in Delveau’s room at the front of the first floor. Sometime later, Elizabeth Davis, a servant, answered the door to a young man whom she had previously seen with Delveau. Finding the maker out, Maddocks asked to wait and was shown to Delveau's rooms. Davis returned to her duties and did not see him again. The maker returned home at 11 pm and found the harp gone. The following Sunday, he saw it at Mr. Twigg's in Rose Street, Long Acre. Maddocks was duly identified as the thief and, in the presence of his mother, confessed, stating that he didn’t wish to cause the harp maker further loss. Twigg, giving evidence, said that he’d questioned the young man who’d presented it. As Maddocks was unable to identify the name of the maker or the harp's serial number, he refused to release it. Maddocks was found guilty and sentenced to death, recommended to mercy on account of his character.[3] Like today, in nineteenth-century Britain there were a variety of punishments for crime. Criminals were sometimes given hard labor. Convicts could expect long silent hours on the penal treadmill,[4] turning the crank machine,[5] beating hemp,[6] or picking oakum.[7] Alternatively criminals could be incarcerated, transported to one of the British Empire's penal colonies,[8] or, as was the case with Thomas Maddocks, sentenced to death by hanging. Public executions continued until 1868, their end brought about by protests from the likes of Charles Dickens. Executions continued inside prisons until 1965, away from the public gaze and salacious press interest.

On 18 September 1837, Joseph Lawrence, a 28-year-old, was indicted for the theft of a harp valued at £145 from its maker, Frederick Grosjean.[9]Lawrence had visited Grosjean’s Soho Square shop presenting himself as a solicitor. He wished to hire one of the maker’s most expensive harps for sixty days and agreed to Grosjean’s rates of a guinea and a half a month. As was custom, he gave a reference which was duly checked by Grosjean’s clerk. At Lawrence’s request, the harp was initially sent to the Golden Cross, but was returned to the maker; presumably Lawrence wasn’t present. The following morning, he visited Grosjean again, this time giving an address of New Square, Cambridge, to where the harp was dispatched. A fortnight later, Lawrence acknowledged safe receipt of the harp, and all seemed well. However, days before the hire period expired, he asked to keep the harp for longer. Grosjean, having sought a second reference, declined, requesting that it be returned. Time passed without its recovery. In March, Grosjean’s clerk saw Lawrence riding in a gig (a single horse carriage) in London and stopped him, bringing him to Soho Square to face the maker’s ire. He had offered a reward for the return of the harp, but in January saw it advertised for sale at an auction house. During the court case, a pawnbroker of Spafields took the stand. Lawrence, under the pseudonym John Long, had pawned the harp for £10 on November 5 1836. A month later, having a buyer, Lawrence redeemed it, selling it to George Barnes of City Road for £15. Barnes, recognizing the harp’s value, sent it to Oxenham’s auction house to be sold, but when approached by Grosjean returned it with an understanding that Lawrence be prosecuted if found. Lawrence was found, convicted of theft, and sentenced to fourteen years transportation.

The Lady Penrhyn convict transport ship

Perhaps the most audacious crime involving the harp came to public attention during a court case in December 1824. William Godfrey (alias Cooke) was arrested on Westminster Bridge, indicted for multiple offences.[10] Godfrey's career in crime was long and varied. Representing himself as the servant of one Mrs. Saunders, allegedly a woman of wealthy means, Godfrey had leased a house on Beaumont Street, London, for 180 guineas per annum. Together they commenced a crime spree. First, Godfrey visited James Wansell, a pianoforte maker of Howland Street. Godfrey stated that his employer, the aforementioned Mrs Saunders, wished to buy a harp. Producing a reference from a “reputable” builder of Chelsea, Godfrey secured an instrument, receiving a bill for four months. Credit was as common in the nineteenth century as it is today, and wealthy clients often sought a buy-now-pay-later arrangement. He explained that Saunders was due to receive dividends from an investment and would pay later. Acting as an agent of sorts, he asked for and received a commission of £2 for arranging the sale. All, at least for the maker, did not go according to plan. Wansell later found the harp in the possession of a Miss Rachel Nathan of Blackfriars Road. Unaware of the value of the instrument, Godfrey, under the name John Thomas, had exchanged it for £10 at a pawnbroker on Shoe Lane. As the renowned harpist of that name was yet to be born, one might assume Godfrey’s pseudonym was chosen for other reasons. John Thomas was a colloquial term for the male organ:[11] the thief, in choosing such a name, was laughing at and taunting his victims. Early nineteenth-century London was awash with harps and harp makers, and it didn’t take long for Godfrey to comprehend the harp’s true value. He soon redeemed the stolen instrument and sold it to Miss Nathan, presumably for considerably more than £10.[12]

Godfrey and Saunders were just getting started, soon approaching other makers and sellers. James Delveau of Conduit Street supplied a harp worth 100 guineas, the Erats provided a top-of-the-range instrument (serial no. 1464), valued at 105 guineas, and two more were purchased on credit from Edward Dodd and Pierre Erard, their values not noted. The Erats' harp is described in their company ledger as a “new grey double-action with burnished gilding, ornamented with a white front (soundboard) and painting.”[13] Here, painting refers to a decorated soundboard. All harp makers provided this option for a fee. The Erats offered arabesques (foliate scrolls), Egyptian or grape borders, and vignettes (classical gilt figures playing instruments) amongst others.

The partners in crime continued to target retailers and makers, this becoming their modus operandi. Next, Godfrey visited James Payne, a music seller of 92 High Street. Purchasing a “fine old violin” for five guineas, and a “good case and a very nice bow” for three guineas, he asked for credit, promising to pay at Christmas. This was not an arbitrary date. In Britain and Ireland, Christmas was a quarter day on which rents fell due, servants were hired, and school terms started.[14] It was common for credit to be settled on these days as well. Godfrey used this tradition to add credence to his thefts. Payne, giving evidence in court, described Godfrey as a “nice young gentleman of most fascinating manners.” As was common, he had sought a reference and was directed to none other than Mrs Saunders at 9 Beaumont Street. Finding her there in a “splendid drawing room,” he received an effusive recommendation: “O dear, sir, you need be under no apprehensions—You are perfectly safe—not a great amount, I hope—you are perfectly safe.” As if to further lull Payne into a sense of security, Godfrey called at his shop again the following morning, arriving in a gig—another illusion of wealth. Godfrey wished to arrange violin lessons, and Payne obliged, attending him the following day. Two more lessons followed, but on the fourth day Godfrey was not home, and was subsequently absent. Eventually, his servant explained that he'd injured his hand and was unable to play, and the lessons ceased. Three months passed without word until one night a stranger called at Payne's shop explaining that Godfrey wished to see him. Assuming that he was to receive payment, Payne attended his customer, finding him in custody at the police office where he'd been accused of fraud. Godfrey's audacity knew no bounds. He asked Payne to vouch for his character and to pay his bail. Payne declined.

Sophia Saunders also directly engaged in instrument theft, hiring a pianoforte which she “proposed” to later buy for her niece. Presenting herself as a woman of fortune with property in the West Indies and an annual income of £500, she promised a down payment of £10 with the balance of £46 to be paid on receipt of dividends from her investments. Thomas Butcher, the maker, agreed to her terms, but as before the bill went unpaid. Godfrey later called on the pianoforte maker to explain that Saunders was in some difficulties, requesting more time. In reality, Saunders was in prison.

The extent of Godfrey’s and Saunders’s crimes were revealed following their arrest. In the subsequent court case, evidence was presented by various trades people from whom the pair had acquired goods. John Coventry, an umbrella maker of Oxford Street, had supplied Godfrey with two umbrellas costing three pounds and nineteen shillings; Charles Steer, a bootmaker of Tottenham Court Road provided him with two pairs of boots, and a city gent had leased him a counting house in Swithin’s Lane. Godfrey had posed variously as a coal merchant, a flour factor, a broker, and a watchmaker. The magistrate, questioning the city gent, asked, “What did you take him [Godfrey] to be?” “A thief,” was the response. John Dacre had loaned a glass coach to Saunders, for which £110 was due, and Captain Sweetman, owner of Spring Cottage, Hampstead, stated that he’d let the furnished property to her; £120 remained outstanding. A footboy, Daniel Flight, had been hired by Saunders at Spring Cottage where she had lived before moving to Bayswater. Flight reported that he was often sent on errands when stolen goods were due to be delivered to the house. On one occasion, he returned to find a piano, four harps, and a quantity of wine. The harps were left there for up to a week, one replacing another. Flight was unpaid until he left Saunders’s service, when she paid him two pounds and four shillings; Saunders must have been concerned that non-payment of wages would have loosened Flight’s tongue and risked her criminal enterprise.


Five-years later, in a surprise turn of events, Edward Dodd took in a harp for repair, its serial number corresponding to that stolen from him by Godfrey and Saunders.[15] The new owner, Mr Earl, then mayor of Winchester, had bought the damaged instrument from a broker in Whitechapel. Seeing Dodd’s name on the harp, he’d sent it to the maker for repair. Dodd, suing Earl for the return of the harp, explained that he’d canvassed several pawnbrokers in the hope of recovering it, including a Mr. Chaffers who kept shops in Greek and Watling Street. It was at the latter he discovered that the harp had been pawned and later passed into the hands of a broker, but he’d been unable to discover the broker’s address. The magistrate ruled that the right of property had not changed, despite theft and resale, and Earl agreed to return the instrument to Dodd. Saunders, we learn, was languishing in Newgate Prison awaiting transportation to Australia. Godfrey, although not mentioned, must have received the same penalty.


Harp makers sometimes appear in court records for crimes unrelated to their profession. On January 2 1837, Joseph Beasmore, a harp maker of Litchfield Street, gave evidence in a court case against Mary Ann Brown, whom he accused of theft. He reported that she had approached him in the street, put her hand into his pocket, removed a sovereign, and placed it in her mouth. Trying to recover it, he grabbed her throat, but she spat the coin into her hand and tried to place it into her shoe. According to James Turner, who was with Beasmore, Mary Ann Brown approached the harp maker “saying something about knowing him. She put her arm around his neck, and put her hand in his pocket, took his sovereign, and put it in her mouth.” Brown, however, claimed that Beasmore had given her a sovereign instead of a shilling in error. She was found guilty and imprisoned in Newgate for six months, six weeks of which were in solitary confinement.[16] The Morning Advertiser, however, reported a more salacious story: “It appeared by the evidence, that the prosecutor met the prisoner and had a “conversation” with her, for which he gave her what he thought at the time to be a shilling, but which turned out to be a sovereign.” The term “conversation,” used euphemistically, was somewhat clarified, indicating that Beasmore perhaps felt he’d overpaid for “services rendered.” “The prisoner, in a most vehement manner, denied the theft. She said that she was a prudent married woman, and repelled the accusation of being a ‘street-walker.’”[17] In the mid- to late- nineteenth century a “knee trembler” (a sexual assignation which commonly took place in a dark alleyway) could be had for four pence.[18] What Beasmore expected for a shilling (twelve pence) we can only guess, but one has to admire Brown’s quick thinking: a sovereign (worth twenty shillings, or 240 pence) would have made her financially comfortable for months.


Charles Williams, City scavengers cleansing the London Streets of impurities (London: Sidebottom, 1816)

In November 1837, John Charles Schwieso, another harp maker, appeared as plaintiff in a court case against his fifteen-year-old nursery maid, Rebecca Kerr. Shortly after Kerr left Schwieso’s employ, he missed four £5 notes that he'd placed in his waistcoat pocket. Kerr had come into Schwieso's bedroom at 7 am to dress his child; he'd heard her moving around the room, but as the curtains were drawn around the bed, he did not see her take the money. He had handbills printed and distributed. The following evening, Kerr was tracked down to a house in Windmill Street. Arriving there with a police officer, Schwieso waited for her to return. She was questioned but denied taking the money. However, when her box was opened, two £5 notes were found. Faced with the evidence, Kerr confessed. At trial, Rebecca Kerr was found guilty of the theft and was transported for ten years to Van Diemens Land, modern day Tasmania.


The nineteenth-century harp (and indeed its modern counterparts) is typically thought of in terms of music and performance, but this is an insular and monocular musicological viewpoint. Examined from an organological perspective, it is a complex machine, juxtaposing ancient ligneous technologies and concepts, with novel and complex mechanics in order to produce sound. The harp’s cultural and social histories are (and always have been) subordinate to its musical life; they are rarely examined. Studying the how, who, where, and why of the harp enables us to not only understand the instrument better, but also to rediscover its broader contexts. Its form speaks of technological change, mirroring that in the world it inhabited; the pedal harp is, after all, a child of industrial revolution, and prey to all its concomitant ramifications. Its ornamentation and decoration reflect trends in architecture, interior and decorative design, and fashion, and its consumption speaks of social class. Through crime, commonly a symptom of poverty, we learn something about the contradistinctions among social classes, and glimpse an important but forgotten part in the life of the instrument.

[1] In pre-decimal currency, £1 was worth 20 shillings or 240 pence and a shilling was the equivalent of 12 pence. A guinea was worth £1 and 1 shilling. Currency was commonly written in the format £ s d (pounds, shillings and pence), for instance £1/9/6. [2] Patrick Colquhoun, A Treatise on the Wealth, Power, and Resources of the British Empire Explained (London: Mawman, 1814), pp. 106-107, 125-126. [3] Old Bailey Online (OBOL), Thomas Maddocks, theft from a specified place, 29 May 1829, f18280529-1 [4] As its name suggests, the penal treadmill involved the convict walking on a wheel, often for many hours, to turn a shaft, causing grain to be milled or water to be pumped. Sometimes, the process was deliberately pointless with no outcome other than breaking the convict’s spirit. [5] Convicts were expected to turn the crank as many as 14,400 times over a six-hour period. [6] Hemp ropes were needed to supply the Navy and shipping industry. Beating it splits the hemp into strands for later twisting into ropes. [7] Picking oakum involved unravelling thick ropes into corkscrew strands, then unrolling these into individual strands. The process often caused the convicts’ fingers to bleed and their thighs, on which they rolled the oakum, to become red and raw. [8] Transportation involved convicts being shackled together beneath decks on merchant ships, commonly square-rigged ships, barks, and occasionally brigs, for expatriation from Britain to Australia. Between 1787 and 1868, its years of operation, around 160,000 people were transported from Britain, 15% of whom were women and of whom 20% were under twenty years old, the youngest being nine years old. Conditions aboard were unsanitary, and disease and death were common. [9] OBOL. Joseph Lawrence, Theft of a harp, simple larceny, 18 September 1837, t18370918-2180. [10] Bell's Weekly Messenger, December 19, 1824. [11] The slang term “John Thomas,” meaning penis, probably originates from the Welsh poet of that name, born in Betws-y-Coed in 1754. In his poetry, Thomas used euphemistic metaphors, such as “a cuckhold’s stick” and “sheep-worrier” instead of the biologically correct term. His name subsequently became synonymous with the male organ. [12] Makers and retailers commonly sold instruments by others, buying them at pre-agreed trade prices in order to make profit. Wansell is known to have had an account with the Erats of Berners Street. Their ledger shows that he bought second-hand single-action harps for around £37, and double actions for about £70; he would have sold these for between £80 and £100. [13] Erat Ledger, C110/99, p.499. The National Archives, Kew, UK, [14] The four quarter-days are Lady Day, an alternative name for the Feast of the Annunciation (March 25), Midsummer (June 24), Michaelmas (September 29), and Christmas day (December 25). Although these have mostly fallen from use, they are still occasionally used as dates for rental property rental payments. [15] Earl v Dodd, Morning Advertiser, no. 11,896, 11 June 1829 [16] OBOL. Mary Ann Brown, pickpocketing, January 2, 1836, t183770102-407. [17] [New Court], Morning Advertiser, no. 14,277 (January 6, 1837), 1. [18] https://carolynindc.wordpress.com/2009/01/02/your-mothers-a-four-penny-knee-trembler/



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