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Around London : the St. Martin’s Lane Round-House deaths of 1742

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© The Trustees of the British Museum

© The Trustees of the British Museum

The IHR library has a great set of London-based collections, relating to all aspects of the capital’s rich and varied history. We’re drawing on these for a series of ‘Around  London’ posts, starting with the infamous tale of St Martin’s Round House.

Although now occupied by one corner of Trafalgar Square, St Martin’s Round House once stood opposite the church of St Martin’s in the Field and it was here during the summer of 1742 Londoners became enraged by the deaths of six women at the hands of the constables in charge of the house. Horace Walpole relates how on the night of the 15th July 1742 the constables had rounded up a group of twenty women – some beggars, some prostitutes, some returning from work – and placed them in the Round House’s holding cell which was only six foot square, ‘where they were kept all night, with doors and windows closed.’ In the morning four were dead and two others would soon succumb a few days later. All the constables fled never facing justice, except one, William Bird, who was tried at the Old Bailey in the October and sentenced to death, although, as the Gentleman’s Magazine relates, this was later commuted to transportation. An engraving held in the British Museum shows how the crowd soon demolished the hated building with Walpole once again summing up their ire:

‘…the greatest criminals in this town are the officers of justice; there is no tyranny they do not exercise, no villainy of which they do not partake.’