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The King v. Godfrey and others: harp fraud in early 19th century London

Updated: Mar 9, 2019

The late-Georgian harp was an expensive and desirable object. Priced for the wealthy classes and aristocracy, ownership was status affirming. This inevitably attracted interest from London’s criminal class. One of the most remarkable and elaborate thefts came to light after one William Godfrey (alias Cooke) was caught and arrested on Westminster Bridge, and brought to trial, indicted for multiple thefts. The initial hearing was reported in Bells Weekly Messenger on 19 December 1824.

Mr Green, an aptly named green-grocer, gave evidence first. On 6 July 1824, Godfrey called at Green’s shop at 270 Oxford Street to order fruit. Arriving in a gig and accompanied by a servant, he gave his address as 5 Craven Hill, and his name as Cooke. Deeming Godfrey to be of good character, Green supplied fruit until 21 July when the accused again visited to place another order. Rather than requesting delivery, as per the previous arrangement, Godfrey requested loan of a basket and explained that a servant would call in 10 minutes to collect the goods (a pottle of strawberries, another of raspberries, a quart of currants, and other things, amounting to 5s or 6s, the total bill by now exceeding £2). The servant duly arrived and Godfrey was seen at the door, beckoning his employee to make haste. Green later learnt that Godfrey had left Craven Hill a day before this final order, and never saw him again.

James Wansell, the pianoforte-maker, spoke next. Godfrey had called at his premises at 20, Howland Street on behalf of a Mrs Saunders, a respectable lady, who wished to buy a harp. Saunders was unable to pay immediately, requesting credit until January when she was due to receive investment dividends. A bill for four months was offered, and a ‘respectable builder’ of Chelsea gave a favourable reference stating that Saunders had rented a house off of him and always paid regularly. For his pains, Godfrey requested a commission of £2. It’s likely that the Erat company made this harp. Their accounts ledger shows that Wansell was a repeat customer, buying a second-hand single-action on 14 September 1821 for £37, another on 25 April 1823 for £36/15/-, and three new double-actions the following year; a rosewood one with burnished gilding and grape borders, and two grey ones, also with burnished gilding, one ornamented with painting and the other with grape borders, for £68/5/- each.

John Coventry, and umbrella maker of 174, Oxford Street, took the stand next. He’d supplied the prisoner with a chaise umbrella and another of silk, costing £3/19/-, but when his servant visited Beaumont Street (Godfrey’s given address) to collect payment, he’d met with obfuscation. He was first told that Godfrey would visit the shop to pay. Another time it was claimed that Godfrey had been out all night and hadn’t yet returned. William Pickett, Coventry’s shop-boy, went to Craven Hill on 31 July, only to find the house there shut up. A house agent of Bond Street later produced a bond signed by Mrs Saunders and Mr Godfrey, showing that the two were acting in conjunction.

Godfrey, presenting himself as a gentleman, was adept at swindling retailers who commonly dealt with the upper classes. From James Payne, a music seller of 92, High Street, he purchased a fine old violin, costing 5 guineas, and ‘good case and a very nice bow’, for 3 guineas, on credit, promising to pay at Christmas. Payne described him as a ‘nice young gentleman of most fascinating manners.’ Payne was directed to Mrs Saunders (Godfrey’s partner in crime) and found her in ‘a splendid drawing-room’ at 9 Beaumont Street. She gave Godfrey a convincing reference, ‘O dear, sir, you need be under no apprehensions - You are perfectly safe – not a great amount, I hope – you are perfectly safe.’ The prisoner visited Payne again the next day, arriving in a gig, stating that he wished to arrange violin lessons. Payne obliged, attending him the following day, the door being opened by a servant dressed in black. Three lessons were given but on the fourth day Godfrey was not home. This continued for several days. Eventually, Godfrey’s servant explained that he’d cut his hand and was unable to play. Three months passed with no word until one night a stranger called at Payne’s shop explaining that Godfrey wished to see him. Payne found Godfrey in custody at the Police Office, having been accused of fraud by a green-grocer, and expecting the music seller to vouch for him and pay his bail. Payne declined.

The next witness, Charles Steer, a boot-maker of 42 Tottenham Court Road, said that Godfrey had visited in May to buy two pairs of boots, giving his address as Spring Cottage, Devonshire Hill. He left with the boots and returned the following week to order another pair, then giving his address as 13 Greek Street. Smelling a rat, Steer ignored the new order. He called at the new address finding no one of that name residing there. On Whit Tuesday, the defendant again visited Steer, this time with a servant. His son, a boy of 12, was the only person in the shop and Godfrey took full advantage, taking down a pair of boots for his servant to try, leaving the shop without paying.

Four harp makers, Messrs Delveau, Dodd, Erard, and Erat, then made representations to the Magistrate. Erat, of 23 Berners Street had furnished a harp of 105 guineas (a top-of-the-range instrument) for a bill of three month, the latter was returned dishonoured, and the harp had been placed at auction room, presumably by Godfrey, and was awaiting sale. The Erat ledger reveals that the harp (no. 1464), a new grey double-action with burnished gilding, ornamented with a white front (soundboard) and painting, was delivered on 13 February 1824. Delveau, of 20 Conduit Street, had supplied an instrument valued at 100 guineas; the values of Dodd’s and Erard’s harps were not noted.

A city gent was next to take the stand, stating that the prisoner had hired a counting house in Swithin’s Lane from him without paying. Godfrey had variously represented himself as a broker, a watchmaker, and a flour factor. “What did you take him to be?” said the magistrate. “A thief”, was the answer

The case was presumably adjourned to allow for investigation. It is next picked up on the front page of the Evening Mail of 8 July 1825, reporting on The King v. Godfrey and others, which had taken place two days previous. The indictment was against Sophie Saunders, and three men, Godfrey, Parke, and Gravett, each accused of conspiring to defraud the subjects of His Majesty. The defendants were charged with obtaining money by fraud, making fraudulent representations, and sharing the spoil. Mrs Saunders, alias Mrs Stamp, Sutton, and Cooke, had been posing as a lady of fortune with large possessions in the West Indies. Although an inmate of the Marshalsea prison, Saunders took advantage of the rules of liberty, that allowed her to leave for work, but obliged her to return at night. Saunders took a house in Hampstead where she was attended by a liveried servant. First a carriage and later a gig was hired. Godfrey posed as the master of the house and where he took responsibility for the order of goods from credulous tradesmen. Gravett (alias Turner), acted as servant, and Thomas Josiah Parke of Westbourne Place, Chelsea, provided references and vouched for the respectability and fortune of Mrs Saunders. The fraudulently obtained items inevitably found their way to pawn-brokers or auction houses. This system had been previously been employed by Saunders at Bayswater. On discovery, she’d had been detained in the King’s Bench Prison from 7 July 1822 to 20 March 1823, the clerk of which revealed that Godfrey had also been committed there between 22 Jun 1822 and 7 January 1823. Saunders was again committed on 13 May 1824 where she remained at the time of this trial, no doubt meeting Thomas Parke there, who was imprisoned from 30 January to 24 March 1824.

One Daniel Flight said that he’d been hired as a footboy by Saunders at Spring Cottage, Hampstead, in December 1823, where he wore a livery of blue jacket and laced hat. Saunders moved from there to Bayswater. At Hampstead, she was known as Saunders, but at Bayswater, by the name Cooke. Godfrey and Mrs Turner (who went by the name Gravett) also lived at Spring Cottage, and Mrs Turner’s brother, the defendant, visited her there. Parke visited infrequently, four or five times, and only slept there once. He initially lived at Pulteney Street and later at Westbourne Place and was visited by Saunders at both. In anticipation of a delivery of stolen goods, Flight was commonly sent on an errand, returning to find new goods. On one occasion her 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. On leaving her employ, Flight went unpaid, although some time later he received £2/4/-, presumably non-payment of wages might have loosened his tongue. Flight further stated that Saunders used to play the instruments, suggesting that she had received some education.

John Dacre said that Saunders had hired a glass coach from him in November 1823 at Hampstead, keeping it until April 1824. Soon after a horse and gig appeared of which Godfrey appeared to be the master. The monied owed totalled £130 with £40 being paid on account at various times. When pressed for the balance, Godfrey reminded Dacre that Saunders had a large property in the West Indies, implying that payment would be forthcoming. Saunders’s coachman, John Slack, gave evidence that Saunders was occasionally accompanied by Godfrey during visits to Parke at Westbourne Place. Parke’s live-in servant, Jane Brown, stated that she lived with him in Clarges Street until January 1824, and that Saunders had taken the first floor of the same house, but didn’t live there.

Captain Sweetman, owner of Spring Cottage, stated that he’d let the furnished property to Saunders for £120 per year. When payment wasn’t forthcoming, it was Godfrey who made excuse on her behalf. Mr Lahee, an auctioneer, leased the Beaumont Street house to Saunders in July 1823. When the rent went unpaid, Lahee visited Parke who expressed surprise, claiming that Saunder’s had rented a house in Clarges Street from him and had always paid punctually. He said that he believed her to be a very respectable woman and had no doubts that she’d settle her outstanding debts in due course. When pressed further, Parke stated that he knew Saunders owned a substantial property in Jamaica which yielded £500 per annum.

Instruments, often being expensive and hence valuable to a thief, were a favourite of the group. Mr Erat appeared again, providing evidence that he had sold a harp to Saunders but had not received payment; and Mr Smith, a pawnbroker, revealed that the same instrument had first been pledged and then sold to him by Godfrey. One of Erat’s employees stated that he had also called on Parke to inquire about the accused. As before, Parke claimed that Saunders was a woman of means, owning cotton plantations in the West Indies. Thomas Butcher said that Saunders had hired a pianoforte from his employers and proposed to buy it for a niece who had taken a fancy to it. Godfrey and Saunders visited proposing to pay £10 and leave a bill for the remainder of £46 to be paid when her dividends became due. This was agreed to but the bill went unpaid. Godfrey called, claiming that Saunders was in some difficulties, but had houses in Kingston, Jamaica. Godfrey revealed that Saunders was in prison. The witness closed the door on him and demanded to know who he was. He eventually gave his name as Godfrey giving an address in Pentonville. James Wansell, pianoforte maker, took the stand, reiterating that Saunder’s had acquired a harp from him. He said that Saunders came to look at the instrument but that she clearly couldn’t play. As her musical ability had been attested to by her footboy, it could be that Saunders was getting into her role, perhaps enjoying playing different characters. She requested that the harp be send home. The bill was never settled and later Wansell saw the harp in the possession of Miss Rachel Nathan of Blackfriars Road. Godfrey had sold it to Mr Cotterell, a pawnbroker of 99 Shoe Lane, for £10 under the name of John Thomas. Godfrey redeemed the harp, perhaps realising that he could sell it for a higher sum, and Miss Nathan later bought it. Mr Dodd, of Oxford Street [3 Berners Street, Oxford Street] explained that Saunders had hired a pianoforte from him, which had been delivered on representations that she was a lady of fortune. The piano was never returned not paid for. Mr James Delveau, a harp maker of Conduit Street, proved that he’d sent a harp to Saunders at Hampstead on hire. She later applied to buy it but Delveau refused. He too never saw the harp again nor received payment.

Here, the prosecution rested its case.

The defence argued that the defendants were people of means, listing the many trades people who had received payment. It was argued that one or other had fallen on hard times or had made unfortunate investments.

The court sat until seven o’clock and the jury deliberated. All parties, except Gravett, were found guilty. Their punishment is not recorded.

Addendum, 9 March 2019

On 11 June 1829, the Morning Advertiser reported that Dodd received the harp stolen from him by Saunders in 1824 for repair from a broker in Whitechapel.

This was an action in trover brought to recover possession of a harp detained from the plaintiff by the defendant.

Mr Brougham and Mr Thessinger appeared for the defendant. The plaitiff is a respectable chemist and druggist, at Winchester, and now Mayor of that town. In January, last year, he employed a friend to purchase a harp for him, for which he gave 40 guineas to a broker in Whitechapel, at whose shop it was openly exposed for sale. The instrument, however, wanted some repairs, and Mr Dodd’s name, as the maker, being on it, it was sent to him to be put in order. As soon as Mr Dodd saw it, he recognised it as one that he had lent, in 1824, to a lady now in Newgate, under sentence of transportation for swindling, but then living in Hampstead, and going by the name of Sanders (alias Sutton Cook). Mr Dodd related how he had been defrauded out of it, but said that he had escaped the expense of a prosecution, by being out of the way when he was called on. He sent notice around several pawn-brokers at the time, and among others to Mr Chaffers, in Greek-street, who has also a shop in Watling-street, at which latter the harp was pawned, and through which it passed into the hands of the broker.

Mr Justice Littledale being of the opinion that the right of property was not changed by the fraudulent obtainment by Mrs Sanders, Mr Brougham consented to be nonsuite.

Morning Advertiser, Thursday 11 June 1829

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Lewis Jones
Lewis Jones
Mar 02, 2019

Dear Mike and all,

At the risk of stating the obvious, harp theft and harp fraud in the early nineteenth century seem largely to be crimes of the middle classes, perhaps especially the aspiring but financially embarrassed or troubled lower middle class. In contrast, the examples I posted last week of thefts of harp strings arose incidentally -- almost accidentally; in neither case was the theft of strings the main objective of petty criminal(s) involved.

Best wishes, Lewis.


Lewis Jones
Lewis Jones
Mar 02, 2019

Dear Mike,

We might be excused for finding the chronology of the King v. Godfrey case bogglingly difficult to follow. Doubtless harps appeared frequently in minor auction houses on the outskirts of London, like Godfrey and Bousfield's house that features in the Auctioning Francis Tatton Latour’s Erard harp in Finsbury item I posted a couple of days ago; but I wonder whether the Erat harp sent to auction in King v. Godfrey might conceivably have been that offered by W. P. Musgarve as lot 115 on 7 June 1825:

'A brilliant toned Patent Pedal harp, by Erat with Deal Case.'

Best wishes, Lewis.

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