By Matthew De Cloedt
When John Ray received Hans Sloane’s letter of 6 April 1700 he could not help “but be moved with indignation”. He was livid that four “vile Rogues, who when they failed in their attempt of breaking open [Sloane’s] house… set it on fire.” Ray believed it was by God’s grace that Sloane, along with his residence at Bloomsbury Square, were not consumed by the conflagration.
The event took place on 5 April 1700 and was a close call for the Sloane family. During the night a group of three or four men snuck into Sloane’s backyard, which was backed by a field. After failing to open the back door they proceeded “by Instigation of the Devil… to set the House on Fire in several places”. They planned to force the family to evacuate the premises and “under the pretence of Friendly assistance they were to rush in and Robb the House”. Using splinters cut from the door the men set the window frames on fire, which were “of a thin and dry” board that sparked easily. The pantry window “burnt with great Violence” and all seemed to be going according to plan.
What the robbers did not count on was Elizabeth Sloane’s alertness. Smelling the smoke, she sent the servants downstairs to investigate. Upon coming to the pantry a male servant opened the door, “was almost Chok’d, with the violence of the Smoke and Flame… [and] Cry’d out Fire”. Instead of panicking the household took to action and immediately set to extinguishing the fire with water collected for washing the linens.
When the back door was opened to let the smoke out the men had already fled. The culprits had not expected the fire to be put out so efficiently and ran when they realized their plot was foiled. Luckily the neighbours had noticed a group of strange men waiting in the backyard and reported their number.
Sloane offered a reward of one-hundred pounds to anyone who could catch the arsonists, but he did not have to pay up. One of the men was arrested for another “Notorious Crime” in Westminster and, to secure his release, gave up the names of his companions. John Davis and Phillip Wake were apprehended and incarcerated at Newgate shortly thereafter.
Both men were repeat offenders and had a laundry list of previous offences. Had they been successful, it was suggested, the “Docters Family who went to Bed in peace” would have “miserably Perish’d by the merciless and devouring Flames”. For this reason Davis and Wake faced the death penalty. At the Old Bailey the man who identified his two accomplices testified against them and assured a conviction. Nothing is mentioned of Sloane participating in the trial.
On 24 May 1700 Davis and Wake, along with six others, were executed. Wake “seemed very Penitent” while Davis” seemed very much Concern’d and Dejected… They both desired all Persons to take warning by their shameful and deplorable tho’ deserved Deaths.”
Sloane and his family were lucky to survive their ordeal for, as Squire Aisle’s servant’s experience made clear, it could have unfolded in a much more unpleasant manner. Near Red-Lyon Square, where the man resided, his house was broken into, his wife murdered, and the house set ablaze, “wherein she was Burnt to Ashes”.
Had Sloane’s family been subjected to a similar fate the fire would have consumed his library and collection (not to mention the potential loss of life. It might be worth reiterating that Elizabeth Sloane’s concern alerted the rest of the household. In saving the house she not only rescued her family and servants but all of the possessions in the household. Perhaps the smoke woke her up; maybe she was having difficulty getting to sleep. Whatever the case, it might be worth considering her an important guardian of the things that would later form the collections of the British Museum and Natural History Museum.
Stay tuned for part two on the trial at the Old Bailey!
An Account of the apprehending and taking of John Davis and Phillip Wake for setting Dr. Sloan’s house on fire, to robb the same, with their committed to Newgate… London: Printed by J. W. in Fleet Street, 1700.
An Account of the actions, behaviours, and dying vvords, of the eight criminals, that were executed at Tyburn on Fryday the 24th of May, 1700… London: Printed by W.J. near Temple-Bar, 1700.
Both texts available at Early English Books Online: http://eebo.chadwyck.com/home