After his conviction on 13 January 1789 Jack returned to Dunstan’s Gaol, where in February 1789 he wrote his pamphlet, A Sketch of the Life of that notorious house-breaker, horse-stealer and highway robber, John Kirby.
It began with a plea to the READER:
“Behold my wretched Life! Behold my Punishment, due reward of my crimes – The Law hath spoken – Loaded with fetters, I must forsake my native home and ramble on the dangerous ocean, till I reach an almost unknown land, wherein I am to be kept for seven years, to hard labour, under the rod of unmerciful leaders. – Those morsels of bread I shall eat, are to be earned with great trouble and bathed with tears of sorrow! Tremble, ye Youth, who are going to read my dishonest adventures, and beg of GOD the strength to avoid doing the least mischief, or to do anything that I displeasing to Him; – have always present to your mind this little but true Proverb: “Keep good company, and good you shall be”; for as Solomon says, Prov. xxiii, v 28, “He that has no rule over his own spirit, is like a city that is broken down and without walls.” May the discovering of my vices and the description of my deserved punishment induce you to listen to the good advice of your friend – make you shudder at the only name of Thieving, and my expectation in publishing this will be fully answered.”
and ended with the following two paragraphs ..
“As many poor servants and other have been very materially injured in their characters, and still remain suspected of being the persons who have robbed their masters, I hope this voluntary confession of mine, will in some measure, atone for the distress they have unavoidably suffered, and convince those who have sustained any loss of the impropriety, if not injustice, of uncharitably charging any person with a theft before it could be substantially ascertained by the clearest and most positive truth. Wherever I found anything of that nature, and thought an innocent person would suffer, I have (where I could do it with safety to my own person) confessed the robbery, which is well known to many persons whom I have robbed, instance of which are to be observed in this narrative.
I now beg leave to return my sincere thanks to those gentlemen before whom I have so often tried, for that mercy and justice shewn to me on all occasions – to the principal inhabitants of Saints Cosmus and Damian, for their ready assistance in giving me work and their earnest endeavours to reclaim me – of the public I most humbly beg their pardon for the numerous depredations I have committed on their property, and hope they will not cast any reflections on my mother, my brothers, or sister, on my account, as they did everything in their power to me live a sober and honest life.”
Jack’s pamphlet was published by Simmons & Kirkby, who were also the printers of the KENTISH GAZETTE. It included a “likeness” or drawing of himself – which has been used on the front page.
The pamphlet was offered for sale for sixpence – about £5 today – and three editions were advertised in the Kentish Gazette as follows. This was the advert for the first edition:
13 March 1789
J A C K K I R B Y
The advertisement for the second edition appeared just a few days later. This included new material here.
17 March 1789
J A C K K I R B Y
About 10 dates later the 3rd edition was advertised in the Kentish Gazette
28 March 1789
J A C K K I R B Y
So how did John Kirby get his pamphlet published?
The British Library article, Crime and punishment in Georgian Britain, seems to provide the answer.
“Throughout this period many people viewed criminals and law breaking as heroic and courageous, and the activities of robbers and villains were often widely celebrated in popular culture. Stories of daring criminality were widely reported in a host of printed pamphlets, books and newspapers, and generated high levels of public interest across the country.
Highwaymen in particular were held in high esteem by many people. Tales of highway robbery often became the stuff of folklore and legend, and several highwaymen became popular celebrities in their own lifetime. When street robber Jack Sheppard was hanged in 1724 after making four escapes from prison, 200,000 people attended his execution. When the celebrated 18th-century highwayman John Rann was let off for a theft in 1774, he was mobbed by a crowd of adoring admirers as he left court in London.”
Did Jack write the pamphlet himself?
Nathaniel, Samuel and Susannah were unable to sign their marriage certificates, which means they didn’t learn how to write, so it is unlikely that Jack was able to write too. Maybe he told his story to someone who wrote it up for him – and yet he was able to update it to create 2nd and 3rd editions very quickly within days of the original being published, which perhaps suggests that he did do it himself.
There are, however, a few spelling errors in family names within the pamphlet, e.g. there is a reference to a Mr Gizzard, when in fact the family name was Izzard – which could be due to dictation or printing errors.
What is remarkable, however, is that Jack’s pamphlet has survived, and a digital scan of the original is available via print-on-demand – which means it is accessible and available to libraries as well as students and scholars of 18thcentury studies.
Last updated: March 11, 2022 at 15:01 pm