‘The King against John Gibson’

In my last post I discussed what Mary Gibson’s two written declarations tell us about the life of her late husband John, my 6 x great grandfather, who died in 1763. In brief, we learn that an ‘extent’, or writ to recover debts, was issued against him by the Crown in 1742; that some time after this he was declared bankrupt; however, the ‘extent’ not being fully satisfied, John spent some years in prison, until released by order of Parliament on certain conditions; and finally, in 1757, some time after his release, he bought a brewing business in Aldgate.

But how did John Gibson come to be indebted to the Crown, and what was the nature of his business before he was declared bankrupt? Starting from the information in Mary Gibson’s two declarations, I searched for further details of the events she describes, and the outline of her husband’s career (and downfall) has slowly become clearer. One of the first records I came across was a collection of ‘Reports of cases concerning the Revenue, argued and determined in the Court of Exchequer, from Easter Term 1743 to Hilary Term 1767’. In the section for Hilary Term 1743, the first case is ‘The King against John Gibson’ which was examined on Friday 3rd February.

Many of the details of the case match Mary Gibson’s account in her declaration, leading me to conclude that the person described in this document is almost certainly my ancestor. Mary relates that in 1742 ‘or thereabouts’ the Crown issued an ‘extent’ against her husband: this report describes an extent ‘issued against [John Gibson] on the 17th of June 1742’ as a consequence of his being ‘indebted to the King in a large sum of money on several bonds for the duty of coals’. Moreover, the report refers to a commission of bankruptcy being issued against the defendant: again, Mary Gibson’s declaration mentions that her husband was declared bankrupt some time after the ‘extent’ was issued. Finally, the report notes that a new extent was required following the bankruptcy commission, which is consistent with Mary’s statement that even after the bankruptcy proceedings, the original extent was not ‘fully satisfied’.

Interestingly, the legal report notes that ‘by an inquisition it was found that several of the defendant’s goods came to the hands of one William Cross, which he had sold for seventy pounds.’ This is reminiscent of John Gibson’s strategy, mentioned in his widow’s declaration, of transferring ownership of his effects to his mother-in-law, Mary Greene, to prevent their seizure by the Crown.

Custom House, London, from the river

Presumably it was the ‘new extent…against the defendant for the debt due to his majesty’ that led to John’s arrest and imprisonment. An entry in the Calendar of Treasury Books and Papers for 4th October 1742, nearly five months after the extent was issued, refers to a report from the Customs Commissioners, London, ‘on the frauds relating to coal duties’, in which John Gibson is described as an ‘agent or crimp for many of the masters of ships in the coal trade’. This is a summary of the Commissioners’ report:

Have examined Mr. Savage, late Comptroller of said duties, whose confession is “that Mr. Deacon, through his [Savage’s] connivance, had given large credit to Gibson and other crimps to the end of 1729 by omitting to insert a true state of the bonds in the weekly certificate on purpose to secrete and keep them from the knowledge of the Comptroller General and other proper officers in charging him and passing his accounts; and that through fear of a discovery he was obliged to continue in the same practice.” Find that the total frauds from 1724–1742 are very large, there being bonds unpaid found in his office to the value of 125,879l. 17s. 11d. Have called on the Comptroller General to know from what vouchers he passed the late collector’s accounts from week to week, and likewise passed them before the auditors to Xmas, 1737. He reports that the Collector of the Coal Duties in London is charged in his books from weekly certificates signed by the collector and comptroller, which are the only accounts that come to his hand from the Coal Office, containing the money received on entries, the money received on bonds, the interest received on bonds, and the bonds charged. From these certificates he charges the collector with the money and interest received in his cash account and in his bond account with the bonds charged; and when in the said certificate the collector acknowledges to have received money on bonds then the said collector has credit given him in his bond account and in his cash account is debited with the amount of that credit. In this manner the account of the Collector of the Coal Duty is made up in the Comptroller General’s Office, and thence transmitted to the auditor with the certificates as vouchers. As to the traders concerned in these frauds there are upwards of 500 persons concerned, most of them masters of ships now employed in the coal trade. Have therefore thought fit to use caution before putting their bonds in suit by previously inquiring into their circumstances so as to give the less substantial of them an opportunity of applying to the Treasury for a reasonable time for payment. Have further ordered a charge to be made upon the late collector from the time he entered upon his office from the coal meter’s certificate, which is the only way of ascertaining the duties. The method of charging the duty upon coals by the collector is from the said coal meter’s certificates, “which being delivered by them to the Collector and Comptroller of those duties only, it has been, and may still be, in their power to conceal and omit what bonds they will in their weekly certificates delivered to the Comptroller General, who has no account from the entries to charge them, or any other vouchers for passing their accounts with the Auditors.” This was the method fixed by the Customs Commissioners, and approved by the Treasury at the commencement of the coal duties. Conceive some further check necessary, and are engaged in devising one for report to the Treasury.

From this account, it’s difficult to determine John Gibson’s precise role in, or responsibility for, the fraud on coal duties, which obviously extended over a number of years. On the next line below the report, we read this intriguing entry:

Endorsed: 1742, Oct. 7. “The Commrs Customes to inform my Lords whether a state of the case relating to the rescue of Gibson has been laid before the Attor. and Solr. Gen.” “What step to be taken relating to the process to seize the estates of Deacon upon the certificate of the Comptroller.”      

And then, on 21st October:

A copy of the report by Rd. Swainston, Solicitor of the Customs, 1742, Sept. 28, containing in accordance with the Treasury minute of August 17 last a general return of the several matters referred to and transacted by him since Deacon’s death, and in particular concerning his proceedings against John Gibson, agent or crimp for many of the masters of ships in the coal trade, and other crimps concerned in the bonds found in Deacon’s office; further as to his proceedings with Mr. Woodward, late clerk to the Collector of Coal Duties, and Mr. Savage, the late Comptroller; further as to the violent rescue of said Gibson. 8¼ pages.

(b) (1) Copy of an affidavit in a case brought in the Common Pleas by Bartholomew Prust, plaintiff, against John Gibson, defendant. 1 page. (b) (2) Praecipe in said case. 1 small page.

 

What on earth is meant by John Gibson’s ‘violent rescue’? I’ve found a claim in another source that ‘Gibson was rescued by force from the Sheriff’s Officers’, but no further details of this dramatic event.

Ships on the Thames at London in the 18th century

Perhaps the best source for understanding the whole sorry story is William J Hausman’s book Public Policy and the Supply of Coal to London, 1700 – 1770, which includes an appendix on the case of William Deacon, the man at the centre of the fraud case. Some, though unfortunately not all, of this account is available online, and it’s worth quoting from it at length:

William Deacon, the Collector and Receiver of Coal Duties, died in London in June of 1742. This otherwise unremarkable event created a stir within the coal trade and government which lasted for eight years. In Deacon’s office were discovered over £125,000 worth of uncancelled bonds for coal duties, representing the largest single case of negligence and fraud in the coal trade in the century. The subsequent investigation shed much light on the workings of the trade, especially regarding the relationships and fate of several prominent lightermen, crimps, or coal factors.

The first governmental report was issued on July 17, 1742. The initial finding by the Customs Commissioners was that ‘great frauds have been committed by the Collusion of Mr Deacon and Mr Savage, his Comptroller with the Masters of Ships or their Crimps, in secreting these bonds.’ The primary concern of the Commissioners at this point was ‘to secure the Debt due to the Crown.’ They took action against the crimps and masters whose names were on the uncancelled bonds. Three promiment lightermen (or crimps) were named as the major offenders:  John Gibson, William Williford, and Sir Maltis Ryall. The estates of the three men were seized, and their holdings inventoried…

A Solicitor’s Report of October 4, 1742, made the charges more specific. The Solicitor reported that, ‘Mr Deacon had given …large Credit to Gibson and other Crimps…by omitting to insert a true State of Bonds in the Weekly Certificate’. He appended both the yearly debt due to the frauds and that owned by Gibson. […] The other major offenders specifically named were Williford (now deceased) and Ryall (insolvent).

A report on December 22, 1742, explained the procedure for paying the coal tax in the port to show how the frauds were committed:

Master delivers his Cockett…to the Collector of the Coal Duties…The Crimp and Master then give Bond or make a Deposit with the Collector and Comptroller of the Coal Duties, for about double the amount of the Duties on the Quantity of Coals expressed in the Cockett.

The Collector then gave the master a warrant to give to the coal meter. The meter supervised the unloading of the coal and certified on the back of the warrant the correct amount delivered. The warrant was then carried back to the collector, who determined the exact duty owed. The duty was satisfied with either notes or bonds. It was by accepting the bonds of the crimps and then failing to report the existence of the bonds to the Comptroller General that the fraud was perpetrated. The Comptroller General, not knowing the bonds existed, never demanded their payment. But the ship masters, according to custom, entrusted enough cash or bonds with their crimps to pay the taxes, so that it was the crimps who ultimately benefited from the procedure (as well as Deacon, if he had been bribed). 

[…] 

The investigation was not yet over, because the government was still trying to collect the back debts from the masters of ships. On February 8, 1743, the masters petitioned Parliament, stating that it had been the crimps’ responsibility to pay the coal duties, and that sufficient funds had been left in the crimps’ hands to permit such payment.  They claimed that it would not be equitable to charge the masters again for the duty supposedly paid by their crimps. They outlined the procedure they followed upon entering the port of London:

That the Manner of carrying on the said Trade is, that when Ships arrive in the Port of London, the Masters employ Crimps or Factors, to dispose of their coals; who, with the Masters, enter into bonds to his Majesty, payable within Three Months, for the Duties on the Coals; and the Masters are allowed Two and a Half per Cent. Discount, if they paid the said duties within Sixteen Working-days after the Entry of the Ships; and the Crimps, or Factors, for their Pains and Trouble, are allowed from the Masters a Commission of Half per Cent.  upon the Amount of the whole Cargo…

On April 23, 1743, John Gibson began his defence. He sent a petition to the Commissioners of the Treasury alleging that he had been in partnership with Nicholas Furrs, that he was bound with Furrs in bonds of considerable value to the Crown, and that ‘this said Money was actually paid, but by neglect of taking up the Bonds, they have been put in Suit.’ He was placing responsibility in the matter squarely on Deacon, who was no longer able to defend himself. Gibson’s petition was referred to the Commissioners of the Customs…

[page of online text missing]

Gibson’s claims were rejected, but it was noted that he was insolvent and imprisoned. All hopes of regaining more of the uncollected duty were given up.  A Committee of the whole House was ordered to consider the matter the following week, but Parliament was adjourned, and nothing more was heard concerning the coal affair.

Gibson proved to be a most resourceful character, for on April 28, 1757, ‘Mr John Gibson, a Coal Factor’, was examined before a committee of the House considering a patent for a machine to unload coal.’

The author presents a table of the amounts owed by John Gibson, as a result of the fraud on coal duties, covering the years 1726 to 1742. The amounts range from £170 in 1734 to an astonishing £27, 760 in 1729. The aggregated amount owing to the Crown from Gibson was £93,110, a significant proportion of the total of £125, 878 lost due to this fraud.

Elsewhere, Hausman describes Gibson as the largest of the major coal dealers in London at the time. In a footnote, he states that ‘it is not known if Gibson was apprehended or turned himself in.’ In the same footnote, he states that Gibson’s petition was actually a restatement of a pamphlet he had published previously, ‘The Case of John Gibson’, ‘stating his position that the bonds had been paid.’ The author adds: ‘In the petition it was noted that he regularly paid over £50,000 per year in coal duties and carried on one-fifth of the business in London’. I’ve found a copy of John Gibson’s pamphlet online and plan to transcribe it for a future post.

Taken together, these diverse accounts provide us with a fairly full picture of John Gibson’s career and his fall from grace. Clearly, his work as a coal factor spanned a number of years, beginning when he was quite a young man, and before his marriage. He was obviously a major player in the coal trade in London in the early eighteenth century, an occupation that brought him considerable wealth, but which, as the Hausman notes, ‘appeared to be a very high-risk occupation’.

Until I read this last source, I had been wondering how to square John’s work as a coal factor with the reference to him, in his father-in-law’s will, as Lieutenant John Gibson. However, it appears that crimps or coal factors worked in the port of London and were also lightermen. Some time ago, I wrote about the link between the Bonners (John Gibson’s daughter Frances married Captain Michael Bonner) and the Drew family, who were also lightermen and owned a substantial amount of property in London.

My only outstanding doubt concerns ‘my’ John Gibson’s ownership of Woodredon House in Waltham Abbey, and the fact that, despite his bankruptcy and imprisonment, this property remained in his family’s possession until some time after John’s death. Could if be that Woodredon was part of the ‘effects’ transferred to the nominal ownership of John’s mother-in-law, Mary Greene, to prevent its seizure by the Crown?

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